It’s soft-shell crab season, and chefs from Washington, D.C. to New Orleans are putting the warm-weather delicacy on their menus. What is it, exactly? Just a blue crab in the middle of a major transition: As it grows, it sheds its hard outer casing and grows a new one. Catch a crab in the middle of the process and you can eat the whole thing with a knife and fork. In some places, the season is already waning. In many others, it’s just getting started. Here are ten standout Southern restaurants where you can enjoy them while they last. Call before you go.
Fish fries are popular in southern India, too, but there the go-to condiment is a chili paste called recheado masala. At this brand-new restaurant, the cooks dredge crabs in a mixture of chickpea and rice flours before frying them and shellacking them with fiery flavor.
James Beard Award-winning chef Jason Stanhope celebrates spring each year with in-season garnishes like ramps, peas, and asparagus, blanched or just barely sautéed with local crab. Recently, that’s meant asparagus vinaigrette and arugula puree.
Chef Matt McCallister of FT33 doesn’t bring his tweezers to this more casual second restaurant, where you’ll find hearty dishes like fried soft-shells with dirty rice, ramps, tomatoes, and brown butter.
There isn’t usually room for long ropes of fresh-cut noodles in the cramped kitchen. When they’re on the menu, it’s to complement special-occasion ingredients like soft-shell crab, which chef Daniel Serfer pan-fries and serves with ribbons of fresh tagliolini in a bath of garlicky scampi sauce.
Mediterranean flavors, Southern ingredients: That’s the governing philosophy at this French Quarter favorite, and the thinking behind soft-shell pairings that range from pink-eyed pea relish to handmade capellini pasta.
Pêche Seafood Grill
800 Magazine Street
Quartered, tempura-fried, and tossed with pickled pepper mayonnaise, the crabs at this critically acclaimed restaurant, like the signature whole grilled fish, are simple but practically perfect. Get chef Ryan Prewitt’s recipe for tempura soft-shell crabs.
At this low-key marina restaurant, chef Bill Briand, who trained under Emeril Lagasse and Donald Link in New Orleans, adds crunch to his crabs with a pecan crust and, as the local supply dwindles in the early summer, a watermelon, cucumber, and cherry tomato salad.
Soft-shells are special enough to stand alone, but they’re also good with the nacho-load of toppings on the soft shell tostada: smoked cheddar, bacon-bean spread, avocado-ramp salsa, and tangy crema.
Dotted with the fleeting likes of ramps and fiddlehead ferns, the menu here is hard to predict. Last time soft-shells showed up, they came with grilled ramps and grits. Will the dish change when the crabs come back this weekend or early next week? It’s worth showing up to find out.
Chef Dean Neff, formerly the second-in-command at Rhubarb in Asheville, serves the crabs all day: At brunch, it’s a soft-shell po’ boy with crunchy carrot slaw, black garlic aioli, and spicy green tomatoes. At dinner, it’s pasta puttanesca with fried softies and grilled clams and shrimp.