I think the defining moment of our visit to Joe’s Crab Shack came when the visibly distraught manager leaned over and put his hands on our shoulders, looked at us sincerely and apologized for the long wait. Only it wasn’t. It was maybe 10 minutes after the appetizer was cleared.
It wasn’t that we were rushed. Our sharp-eyed server checked once to see if we were “still working,” then left us alone. Pauses are an essential part of dining, the time when you have conversation and some quality time to relax with your companion. Joe’s likes to keep you moving along.
Joe’s Crab Shack
WHERE: 579 Troy-Schenectady Road, Latham, 785-0472, www.joescrabshack.com
WHEN: 11 a.m. to midnight Sunday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday
HOW MUCH: $85.21 with two glasses of wine, tax and tip
MORE INFO: No reservations. Credit cards: Master Card, Visa, American Express, Discover. Children’s menu. Wheelchair accessible.
We enjoyed watching the dancing staff and the children who jumped up to join them. The boy at the next table was having a great time dropping Pop Rocks into his drink, flinching each time as if anticipating a nuclear event. An adorable pigtailed toddler played with colorful seahorse drink stirrers. Joe’s Crab Shack, as you can tell by their outdoor playground, is profoundly family-friendly.
We gave our name and cellphone number to the staff person at the door, who tapped it into her tablet and promised a 20-minute wait, and then we headed for the bar. On a Saturday night, there were plenty of seats available; clearly, the curiosity factor has worn off since they opened last September. Five minutes later, husband Eric got a text: our table was ready. “Seven minutes from door to table,” he said.
Our table was on the beach front of a sea of four-tops near the kitchen door; there are generous booths along one wall, and there’s another, smaller dining room to one side. Almost all of the tables were full and turned over during our visit.
I was delighted that the menu gave calorie counts, which are astonishing although not unremarkable for a restaurant that serves big portions. There are about a dozen starters, with a few specialties like “crazy-good clam dip” among the standards. Joe’s offers steampots, Dutch oven-sized vessels with crustacean parts dangling over the sides, and galvanized buckets of crab-centric meals. Shellfish is not cheap, and it’s easy to spend 30 bucks for a bucket of crab or close to that for a steampot. The upside is that you can dine healthfully and well on seafood, and there are several calorie-conscious choices available.
Our server pulled the roll of paper towels out of the bucket in the middle of our table and wrote her name on a sheet with a fat black marker. She stuck one end in the middle of the roll and explained what to expect, which boiled down to a bucket into which you discard seafood detritus. We found forks in another bucket but no knives.
Dinner and a show
Suddenly the music got very loud. Joe’s employees get a good workout: In between hoisting trays and hustling around, there is energetic dancing and singing. Conversation was impossible, and I was prepared to be annoyed until I looked past the tables with their stuffed paper towel rolls sticking up and saw the kids hopping and waving their arms and I realized what Joe’s is about: entertainment. It’s not about the food, which tasted OK.
We took the friendly bartender’s suggestion to try the crab nachos ($10.49, 2,000 calories, but we didn’t plan to eat it all), which were pretty darn good. The oversized chips were hot and crisp and salty and topped with a creamy crab dip that trailed cheesy strings of Monterey Jack, hence the 2,000 calories, plus sliced black olives, pico de gallo, a smattering of black bean and corn relish and some gratuitous iceberg lettuce shreds. The crab topping was Old Bay seasoning-scented, and the bits of crabmeat were tasty. The toppings were layered between the chips, not just dumped on top, and stayed warm until we reached them. We didn’t finish, of course, but we ate more than we planned.
Eric settled for the salmon Orleans ($16.25, 1,000 calories) when he heard they were out of the lobster pot pie. The salmon portion was topped with a crawfish-and-crabmeat-enhanced creamy Cajun sauce that could have used more heat, as could the andouille sausage, he said. The dirty rice was heavy with cumin and just right, like the very good Zatarain’s product you can buy at the market and cook at home. The fish was a bit dry, though.
I chose the East Coast platter ($18.79 and 1,550 calories) because it offered the greatest variety: stuffed shrimp, a crab cake and a piece of battered fried fish. The plate was rounded out with thick-cut, delicious golden French fries and a pile of skinny breaded fried onions. To me, fried onions are more of a garnish than a side dish, and I lost interest after the third one.
The whitefish was the best part, flaky and coated in spicy, crispy batter. Eating the shrimp was a challenge without knives; though they weren’t big, I didn’t want to eat a whole one at once. The stuffing satisfied; like the tasty crab dip, it was cheesy and sweet. The homemade crab cake was the most challenging component of the plate; it had hearty chunks of crabmeat but badly needed an egg to hold it together. “Bready,” judged Eric.
I’m on a diet, of course, so I picked at my meal, and the nice server boxed most of it to go. Eric left enough for me to do an examination later, and we were thoughtfully provided with a plastic bag to carry the leftovers.
Key lime pie ($6.99, no calorie count available) seemed to be just the thing to round out the meal, and soon we were staring at a square of white-topped tangy, lime-garnished dessert. The damp graham cracker crust contained chopped walnuts but was not as sturdy and sweet as it should have been. We liked the filling and the creamy white topping, but it didn’t merit stuffing ourselves and we left half of it uneaten. Eric asked for the check, the server whipped it right out of her apron and we were ready to roll.
I like dining, even casual dining, to be the event that caps the day, not a just pause between activities. Joe’s Crab Shack jumps in to fill that pause, which for busy folks offers an entertaining but not entirely culinary respite. We had fun, though, and the cheerful, friendly young staff made us feel welcome and appreciated while the animated, delighted kids made for a pleasant evening; we left feeling good. If you have kids, watch them light up at Joe’s; even if you don’t like kids, you can’t help but be charmed.
Joe’s Crab Shack is very good at what it does, but you’re likely to enjoy the entertainment more than the food.