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If Fisherman's Wharf symbolizes San Francisco at its tourist-pimping ticky-tackiest, Pier 39 is the neighborhood's quintessential microcosm. Built upon two levels of theme-park rigging, it has everything the wayfarer might require: pizza, burgers, sourdough bowls, and fish and chips to please the belly, and Alcatraz tours, seaplane excursions, bungee jumping, and celebrity sea lions to provide verisimilitude. There are T-shirt emporiums, places to purchase novelty headgear and Christmas decorations year-round, and quaint shoppes out of some barnacled Renaissance Faire, where short-sleeved sightseers who came to California expecting San Francisco to have the same climate as Palm Springs can duck in out of the wind and fog. There's even a Hard Rock Cafe under construction at the old site of the bumper cars.
The other night I found myself in the middle of Pier 39 enjoying my time immensely, and believe me, I was as surprised about it as you'd be. It's been my experience that the only good reasons to venture into the vicinity are the chocolate chip cookies at Blue Chip Cookies and the bourbon at the Eagle Cafe -- but that was before I tasted the Killer Crab at the Crab House, a cozy little seafood restaurant on the pier's upper western level. Co-owners Jerry Dal Bozzo and Dante Serafini also operate two other tourist meccas, Calzone's and the Stinking Rose. The Crab House's setting is exactly what you'd expect from them: a sort of roadshow Trader Vic's with fish nets hanging from the ceilings and sea dog memorabilia adorning the nooks and crannies. Individually decorated crabs (more than 200 of them) occasionally divert one's attention from the spectacular bay/Alcatraz/ Golden Gate Bridge views, and there's a Vegas-hip fire pit near the bar to provide warmth during those frigid summertime evenings. The mahogany tables are topped with marble, giving the place a bit of that oyster-bar ambience, and the sound design is pleasantly schizoid -- a little Tony Bennett, a little Buck Owens, a little Tito Puente.
To start things off on the right foot, there are roasted mussels served sizzling and aromatic in an iron skillet. These plump, sweet, smoky mollusks would be perfectly delicious on their own, but dipped into the lemony butter sauce set into the center of the skillet, they're transcendent. The crab chowder, on the other hand, is thin, weak, and nearly flavorless despite an abundance of occasionally identifiable ingredients such as potatoes and onions. There's also an alleged Caesar salad with none of the pungent qualities of the original, but it's beautifully presented on a long oval platter with a marvelous cheese-garlic crisp on top, filling in for the usual croutons.
203C Pier 39
San Francisco, CA 94133
Region: North Beach/ Chinatown
Roasted mussels $10
Killer Crab $19/half order, $35/full order
Crab cioppino $20
Sautéed tilapia $14
Lemon torta $6
Château St. Jean fumé blanc $6/glass
Open daily from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Parking: one hour validated at Pier 39 garage before 6 p.m., two hours validated after 6 p.m.
Muni: F, 15, 39, 47
Noise level: just above normal
The house specialty is the Killer Crab, a whole 2-pound Dungeness roasted in an addictive garlic butter sauce. The roasting process seems to intensify the flavor of the crab in a way that steaming and boiling don't; the result is crabmeat that's a bit less supple in texture but richer and brinier -- more elemental -- in flavor. With a beaker of Anchor Steam and a side order of the house's wonderfully greasy garlic noodles, it's a memorable feast. You can also get the Killer Crab by the half order, which translates to seven or eight crab legs dripping with that piquant sauce.
In addition to the Killer Crab and the roasted mussels, there are two other menu items worth ordering. The cioppino comes in a silver tureen with a ladle, a bowl for discarded shells, and various tools for the cracking and excavation of crabmeat. The house crustacean is the only seafood to be found in this pure and simple version of San Francisco's signature dish, and the stewed crab is as moist and creamy as the roasted crab is spicy and intense. The base liquid is closer to a rich tomato bisque than the chunky vegetable stews that support most cioppinos, with discernible Mediterranean hints of fennel and garlic. Lots of good, crusty sourdough stands ready for the best part of the cioppino-eating experience: the dunking.
If you're really crab-happy you can keep satisfying your addiction with crab cocktail, crab cakes, crab legs, crab Caesar salad, crab Alfredo, crab lasagna, a crab enchilada, or a crab melt, but we decided to test different waters and ordered the venue's other impressive entree, the sautéed tilapia, a spiny-rayed African native fish that according to legend was split into two species when Moses parted the Red Sea. The species served at the Crab House is succulent and delicate, with a wonderfully crunchy skin brushed with soy and ginger. But what makes the dish special is its bed of acini di pepe, a tiny, tender, couscouslike pasta mixed with chunks of eggplant, zucchini, and tomato -- a marvelous concoction. (You can also get the acini di pepe as a side order.)
The non-vintage 26-item wine list is designed for people who want something alcoholic to swallow along with their cioppino and aren't picky about what that might be. If you suspect that there's more to life than chardonnay, you're pretty much out of luck. But the prices are moderate, and the Château St. Jean fumé blanc, for example, makes a light, crisp complement to the fish. Eleven wines come by the glass.