SAN FRANCISCO -- Crab and San Francisco go together like sour and dough, and you can find it here in just about every incarnation from basic cracked and steamed to meticulously plated in the mode of haute cuisine.
But if you like your crustaceans on the crispy side, you may want to check out the city's Chinatown, the district that almost wasn't. The original community was razed by the great earthquake and fire of 1906, and city leaders planned to relocate residents away from the valuable land next to the Financial District.
Except that farseeing businessman Look Tin Eli and a group of like-minded entrepreneurs came up with the financing and the vision to do better. He helped create a theatrically decorated neighborhood that would serve as a tourist attraction as well as provide a place to live, hence the many pagoda-style roofs and splashes of bright red and gold.
If you are lucky enough to be in San Francisco for Chinese New Year, the 15-day festival that begins Jan. 31, a stroll around Chinatown before or after a meal will show you the neighborhood in its frenetic, bustling glory.
But for those crispy crabs, you'll want to head to the R&G Lounge (631 Kearny St., (415) 982-7877, rnglounge.com). There's nothing fancy about the R&G, which presents a modest facade to the world at its three-level Kearny St. location. Step inside and you'll find traditional rib-sticking fare, such as oyster clay pot and minced sea food in lettuce cups.
If you're in the mood for a libation, you might try the lychee martinis along with the house specialty of geoduck sashimi. (Geoducks, pronounced gooey-ducks, are the huge clams with gnarled necks that look like a pint-sized elephant's trunk.) The restaurant's "Special Beef" is also popular here. Don't ask for the recipe; it's a secret.
But the star attraction is the salt and pepper crab, a whole Dungeness crab cleaned and partially jointed, dipped in batter, deep-fried and lightly seasoned. This is not cheap -- on a recent visit the market price was $40 -- but there's a lot to go around; two people could split one for a meal with rice, or for four as an appetizer.
Artistically arranged on a white plate with the glistening shell (filled with the crab butter) arranged on top, this is a dish to admire for a few seconds before getting to work with fingers, forks and nut cracker.
Waiters keep your glass filled with piping hot tea, but you may want to accompany this with a beer, a lager like the Chinese brand Tsingtao would make sense. Service is brisk but pleasant and the decor is plain but clean. Go downstairs if you want to see the fish tank filled with future dinners gloomily eying their fate.
Warning: Salt and pepper crab not recommended for a first date.