A yearning for a taste of home is quite often a recipe for culinary success. That’s what the brothers Nguyen—Mark (front of house), David and Irvin (in the kitchen)—are banking on by trying to satisfy their cravings for Cajun seafood via their California upbringing with The Angry Crab in West Ridge. “We’re all from California and there are these crab shacks all over the place,” Mark said. “Every time I go back home, we head out to eat at one. But when my brothers would visit Chicago, we could never find one, so we decided to bring the concept here.” I stopped in recently to see if the brothers’ effort would taste like delicious innovation or cheap nostalgia.
The scene: Asian families chowed down at honey-colored wood communal tables amidst anchors, fish, netting and walls signed in permanent marker by past customers. “We haven’t done a lot of advertising yet. It’s mostly word of mouth. There are a lot of Filipinos in Rogers Park,” Mark said. “I know this because my fiancee is Filipino, and this is how they love to eat, family-style with their hands, it’s called kamayan.” Indeed, most of the folks around me are pros. One group of guys brought a box of surgical gloves and went at it breaking open shellfish by hand. With their gloves flecked with wicked-looking orange seasoning, they looked like they had performed surgery on a patch of pumpkins.
The seafood: Live lobsters ($24.99 a pound) and dungeness crab ($17.99) are delivered daily by a few local suppliers, while live crawfish ($12.99 a pound—also a rarity, as most crawfish served locally is frozen) comes from a Gulf Coast supplier every few days. The hulking dungeness crabs were super-fresh and reminded me of the live stuff I occasionally buy at Dirk’s Fish Market in Lincoln Park. Littleneck clams ($10.99 a pound) were briny and tender. There were also shrimp, head-on ($12.99 a pound) or off ($14.99), soft-shell crab ($11.99 a pound) and snow crab legs ($16.99 a pound) on offer. The prices are really reasonable considering you’d pay about the same for most of it bought uncooked at a grocery store.
The seasonings: The concept is to pick your seafood and then match it up with a housemade seasoning or sauce. Choices include “insane” lemon pepper seasoning, “grumpy” garlic butter sauce or “smoking” angry spice seasoning, a Cajun blend. You also can order the “maniac” blend, which is all three mixed together. Once you choose a base seasoning or sauce, you also specify a spice level: There’s the semi-spicy Ragin’ Bulls mix, the spicy Ferocious Bears blend and the “hella spicy” Dangerous Hawks blend. I assume the Ragin’ Bulls spice blend was created when Derrick Rose was hurt, because the Thai chilis in it barely registered. Ferocious Bears had a little more heat, but honestly, Jay Cutler’s performance last season caused me way more pain. Admittedly, I steered clear of the Dangerous Hawks, which included scorpion and ghost pepper. I found my favorite of the ones I tried—and according to Nguyen, their most popular selection—was the maniac blend with a touch of the Bears spice. The lemon pepper got a little lost, but the garlic butter and Cajun seasoning melded pretty well with the sweet meat of the dungeness crab. I stuck with the basic garlic butter bath for my lobster, which featured super-tender tail and claw meat.
The sides: In addition to the seafood, you can order your meal “extra dirty,” as the menu calls it, which is essentially in the style of a Cajun crab boil with red skin potatoes (50 cents a piece), andouille sausage (75 cents a piece), or corn on the cob (75 cents a piece). The corn and potatoes had a nice bite, while the fantastic andouille was flecked with garlic and hot peppers. Cajun fries ($4.50) were crisp and golden like McDonald’s, though not nearly as addictive, while a batch of garlic noodles ($8) tossed with parmesan, herbs and garlic was soggy and bland.
The service: My server only brought two shellfish crackers, so our party of four had to share them. I tried to flag her down for more, but she disappeared after our food was delivered. The seafood was served in clear plastic bags, which as my one friend remarked, seemed “a little trashy.” I appreciated the informal nature of the seafood feast, but it would be good if the Nguyen brothers could come up with some kind of serving vessel that doesn’t remind diners of garbage.
The drinks: Since it’s BYOB, I brought along some Goose Island Matilda Belgian-style pale ale and Pipeworks Citra pale ale. The Matilda was a little too delicate, but the hoppy, grapefruit bomb that is Citra made a great companion and cut through the spice. Each table was equipped with a bottle opener, a smart touch.
Bottom line: The Angry Crab is a great BYOB spot serving up pristine, affordable family-style Cajun-spiced seafood. It really has no parallel in Chicago right now.
Mini-review: The Angry Crab
5665 N. Lincoln Ave. 773-784-6848
This article first appeared in Redeye Chicago in a different form.