Feeling Crabby

Must we love everything about S.F. -- even the Dungeness?

Being a native San Franciscan comes with obvious benefits. You get to call it Frisco or San Fran or Shaky Town or Land of Fruits and Nuts or whatever the hell else you want. You earned that right at public school. You've paid your dues. The rest of the Johnny-come-latelies can bite your Levi's-wearing derriere.

And you also get unlimited license to reminisce about the bygone days of yore -- how great it was when the 49ers played at Kezar Stadium (OK, I don't really remember this, but my brother says it was great), how you swam at Fleischacker Pool and rode the giant record player at Playland.

But there's a downside to being a born-and-bred. You are required by the laws of heritage to unconditionally adore all the things that make the city famous: the fog, the Golden Gate Bridge, the cable cars, the sourdough, the crab.

Dissing even one of these is tantamount to heresy, like saying you don't get all choked up at that part in the movie San Francisco when Jeanette MacDonald belts out, "I'm coming home again ...," right before the big '06 earthquake hits.

I've got no quibbles with most of these icons -- I still get a chill every time I cross the Golden Gate, and I can't remember the last time my breadbox held anything besides a variation on sourdough -- but I've long had issues (well-documented in this column) with the fog. And, truth be told, I can be a little iffy on the Dungeness.

What can I say? Sometimes the meaty crustacean just doesn't do it for me. At various crack 'n' go stands on the Wharf I'm put off by overly fishy, musky flavors. And in my opinion, Dungeness falls flat in permutations such as crab cakes. With cioppino, that classic S.F. stew, my palate is usually too over- or underwhelmed by the red sauce to pay close attention to the shellfish. So where does that leave me?

In the fresh category, it's old standby Swan Oyster Depot for a cracked crab cocktail. In the cooked class, it's the much-heralded Crustacean or Thanh Long (owned by the same family) for a Vietnamese-style whole roaster. Then recently I was reminded of a place that always flies under my radar in the second category (the preparation I prefer): PPQ Dungeness Island (2332 Clement, 386-8266, www.ppqdungeness.com).

With none of the flash of Crustacean or Thanh Long, PPQ delivers a terrific array of tantalizing Vietnamese crab alternatives. Starters include crabmeat and asparagus soup, a wonderful bright, brothy temptation, and crabmeat fried rice, which puts an interesting twist on the standard side dish. But it's the entrees that really give on-the-fence crab eaters something to chew on. Spicy crab with basil and jalapeños and curry crab are homages to fusion. Drunken crab bathes a whole critter in wine broth for a Continental touch. And at the top of the list, whole roasted crab drips in garlic butter and spices (similar to Thanh Long's, but the preparation is less rushed so the sauce is more nuanced), while peppercorn crab features a shellfish coated in light batter, then fried in garlic and peppercorns. The presentation of the latter -- the shell and claws broken apart and then reconstructed on the plate with mounds of buttery minced garlic, scallions, and yet more peppercorns -- deserves a round of applause. The spice can get a bit overpowering, but with the right accompaniment (garlic noodles or chicken cabbage salad in sweet vinegar), it's a dish that will put Dungeness back on the list right next to cable cars.

 
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