The crab shack is a species of restaurant indigenous to the Gulf and Atlantic coasts of the United States, and so in these Pacific parts is something of a rarity. Back East, crab shacks tend to be found near beaches — my first experience of one was at Rehoboth Beach, Del., in the summer of 1987 — and to emphasize freshness and immediacy over elaborate preparation. Hence the omnipresence of crab and lobster rolls, french fries, fried clams, steamed crustaceans presented whole and chilled, and other simple, honest fare from the sea.
(A word to the wise: according to the Urban Dictionary, www.urbandictionary.com, “crabshack” also means “crusty slut.” Use of condoms is advised when approaching same, but why? Do rubbers stop critters?)
If you were to launch a search for crab shacks in San Francisco, you would probably not begin at the bustling vortex of Market, Church, and 14th streets — our version of Piccadilly Circus, with not a beach in sight but zillions of streetcars and buses and a subway line underfoot and a zillion transit connections with a zillion pedestrians to make use of them, or not. Also: cars beyond number; you are well advised not to drive into this maelstrom. But do go, by foot or bike, Muni or horse, because at this insane intersection you will find, in the longtime Café Cuvée space (subsequently and briefly occupied by World Sausage), the Woodhouse Fish Company, a cheerfully clattery simulacrum of a crab shack with a to-the-point menu of crab-shack greatest hits, convincingly rendered.
The space has always been a little awkward, despite its high profile at a busy crossroads. There isn’t a proper entryway — you step in and are among tables — and the street presence can seem a little too immediate when a bus roars by or an ambulance shrieks or (less frequently, but surprisingly frequently this summer) a hot wind blows. The lack of a buffer zone was a burr under Cuvée’s elegant saddle, but it matters less for an urban crab shack.
Although tumult from the outside world does seep in with regularity, the place doesn’t look like a shack. It’s been redone in handsome white and green tiles, with a bit of kitschy crab iconography worked into the floor. The look is clean and low maintenance, if reverberant. But tidying up does have its price; a glance at the menu card reveals plenty of numbers in the upper teens, with a few over $20 — not exactly shacky. On the other hand, $29 for a one-and-a-half-pound Maine lobster, served chilled, with drawn butter and coleslaw, isn’t a bad deal. Lobster is best when tinkered with little; the meat has a subtle sweetness that builds if left alone but is easily drowned by sauces. However, some sauce work might have helped the disappointing coleslaw. The cabbage shreds were pretty enough, a mélange of purple and green, but the dish was a little thin in the creaminess department.
A near relation to the slaw, but better equipped, cream-wise, is the iceberg wedge ($5.50), a quarter head of iceberg lettuce showered with bread crumbs, in the manner of a gratin, and lounging amid a supplicant pool of blue cheese dressing dotted with garlic croutons, tomato wedges, and slices of ripe avocado. The truth is that there is too much boring lettuce here — iceberg’s dim reputation is hardly undeserved — but the peripheral players are zesty enough to conceal much of the boringness. A more sophisticated sort of chilled salad is the stuffed avocado ($16); the fruit is peeled and halved and the halves stuffed with, respectively, crab meat (whose sweetness, like that of lobster, benefits from light handling) and peeled prawns. Sauces stand ready at the sides of the platter: a decent cocktail sauce and a distinctively clean-flavored lemon mayonnaise instead of the usual suspect, tartar sauce. I dunked both garlic bread and fries in the mayo and was pleased.
The clam chowder is excellent and is available by cup ($4.50) or bowl ($6) or as part of the Gloucester lunchá ($8.75). This midday option (available until 3 p.m.) also includes half a crab roll — with a seam of melted cheddar cheese that seems out of place — a stack of good fries, and a watermelon point. The roll’s roll was soft and toasty warm, but I wondered: if this is a half roll, how big is a full roll? The answer must be that if you have to ask, you don’t want to know.
You can also get fried Ipswich clams (flown in from New England) on a roll, but at dinnertime one does not favor sandwiches, so we go instead to the platter version ($20), a formidable mass of clam meat liberated from shells and given a knobbly breading before the quick swim in hot oil. Impressions: excellent rough-tender texture, clam meat has a chicken-livery flavor I’d never noticed before, and a plateful of fried clams with french fries is a lot of fried. A squeeze or two from a lemon wedge cuts the greasiness a little though not a lot, but even a little is better than nothing.
An excess of fried food during a dinner’s savory sequence can induce panic about dessert — i.e., should I have fries and a slice of chocolate mousse cake with a scoop of gelato? should I phone ahead for an ambulance? — but Woodhouse solves this problem by not offering dessert. You might luck out at dinner and score, gratis, a thumbnail-size brownie for everyone in your party: petits fours, crab-shack-style. I admire this cheerfully stern no-sweets policy. And … a hint for you sugar sluts: Just Desserts is just around the corner. SFBG
WOODHOUSE FISH COMPANY
Daily, 11:45 a.m.–9:30 p.m.
2073 Market, SF
Beer and wine