July 11 2007 12:00 AM

Eating at Crab Hut is messy but worth it

Sometimes a memorable meal is not a white-cloth-napkin, fine-china affair requiring proper table etiquette and all that grown-up manners stuff. Sometimes a great dining experience goes down in a place with no plates at all, where your fingers are your best utensils and plastic-bib-wearing adults are a common sight. Such is the scene at the Crab Hut in Kearny Mesa, a seafood joint that encourages hands-on eating and going for the gusto.

Kim Phan, Crab Hut's 24-year-old owner, has transformed a Convoy Street Vietnamese restaurant into a cheery, nautical-themed seafood shack that brings a taste of ragin' Cajun specialties to hungry folks who have no immediate plans to book a trip to Louisiana. While most people flock to Crab Hut's strip-mall home to get their frozen yogurt fix at Yogurt World, eaters-in-the-know brave the cramped parking lot to feast on a seafood dinner before they get their dessert.

I was first lured to Crab Hut by the large sign out front advertising live crawfish, which are rare to find west of the Continental Divide. Crawfish season is just now coming to an end, but Crab Hut will offer fresh crawfish when available, or frozen crawfish throughout the summer until they become available again in November. All variety of shellfish here, great and small, are cooked in a seasoned boil, which is spiked with a carefully researched combo of spices and herbs. Extra flavorings are added to order, including Lemon Pepper, Garlic Butter and zesty Cajun Sensation. We chose the Full House, a mix of all three, and were advised by Kim to select the mild heat option, as the medium is pretty darn spicy and the hot will nearly blow your head off.

Our group started off with a modest three pounds of crawfish, reasonably priced at $7.99 per pound, which included a few slices of sausage and sections of corn and was delivered steaming hot to the table in big plastic sacks along with handy plastic bibs and a large roll of paper towels. The tabletops are wisely covered in heavy butcher paper to soak up all manner of seafood juice and debris. Finicky or timid diners have no place here; it's strictly grab a crustacean and get to cracking. For a while, the only sounds from our group were the crunching of shells, pinching of tails and sucking of heads for the savory brew within-it's a messy scene, but not quite as dirty as it sounds. The little nuggets of tail meat were nicely textured, and their flavor was enhanced by a quick dunk in the extra lime juice/black pepper dip provided.

Although working on the crawfish was fun, it was quite a bit of effort for a relatively small amount of edible stuff, so we ordered some boiled shrimp for more sustenance. The whole shrimp were nicely cooked, tender and meaty. Crab Hut also does spiced boils of Dungeness crab, blue crab and king crab legs. The menu is concise, and while there's little to be found in the way of veggies or non-seafood items, Crab Hut offers a few other worthy dishes. I couldn't get enough of the fried catfish filets, moist and juicy under a crisp spicy-sweet coating-we all agreed that we'd come back just for another helping of this delicious fried fish. We employed our first utensils of the meal to spoon up the rich and hearty gumbo, served in mugs for easy eating. Although gumbo is traditionally eaten over white rice, here the rice is mixed into a spicy broth laden with okra, sausage and whole shrimp. Crab Hut also serves Delaware oysters on the half shell and additional fried seafood items.

The restaurant is staffed by an assortment of owner Kim's friendly relatives and friends. Her dad, who owns an area pho shop, oversees the morning preparation of the seasoned seafood boil, and other family members are involved in constant taste-testing to tweak existing recipes and develop new ones. They helpfully provide moist towelettes for your post-seafood-feast cleansing needs, although you'll probably require a thorough scrubbing down after your bare-handed-eating exploits.


Crab Hut, 4646 Convoy St. in Kearney Mesa, is open from 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday, and from noon to 10 p.m. Saturday and Sunday



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