Tuesday, January 25, 2000

Tacky as a tourist and just as plentiful

Posted on Tue, Jan 25, 2000 at 4:00 AM

To use the word "tacky" to describe the looks of Joe's Crab Shack is underkill. My friend summed it up as soon as we walked through the door of this wildly popular restaurant. "It looks like they have a toy store hanging from the ceiling in here," she said.

It was true. It looked like a decorating team with multiple-personality disorders had swept through. Every square inch was plastered with dangling skateboards, dolls, Frisbees, in-line skates, teddy bears, model airplanes, Barbies and toy trains. A life-size replica of Jaws was suspended over the middle of the restaurant. The theme carried through to loud top-40 music and an army of waiters who were trained to drop everything and do the Hustle every so often -- many of them wearing T-shirts bearing the mantra "Peace, Love and Crabs."

"Come on, folks, have a good time!" seemed to be the message they were screaming. And the capacity crowd -- packed into booths and lined up out the door and into the parking lot -- was eating it up.

Despite the decorative disarray, the kitchen is focused when it comes to delivering moderately priced chow fests on the double. There are more hits than misses on the menu -- presented in such a rambling fashion that it's like reading the classifieds -- and Joe's Crab Shack is probably the best choice for seafood if you're in the South Semoran Boulevard area, considering they stock many sea species.

There's shrimp (popcorn, rock, jumbo) and yellowfin tuna, lobster tail, north Atlantic salmon, mahi mahi, grouper, calamari and clams. And, as the menu reads, theres "crabs, crabs and more crabs" in the form of "crab balls," crab fingers, crab cakes and soft-shell crabs. Then you got your crab legs: snow, Alaskan king, Dungeness. Despite the sheer volume, dining adventurers won't find much to explore. Everything is safely fried, steamed, grilled and broiled, with little in the way of funky sauces or presentations to mess things up.

"Crab balls" fritters ($4.99) have potential, but the ones we were served were too heavily breaded. A much better appetizer is the jumbo crab cake ($6.99), packed with lump meat and a hint of spices.

Seafood mixed grill ($13.99) offers an adequate skewer of grilled shrimp, but you can get perfectly adequate shrimp at a hundred other restaurants. The garlic-steamed snow crab legs were more alluring, packed with tender white meat and plenty of clean flavor. But the main thing this plate has going for it is a moist, delicate salmon fillet -- ask for it to be prepared with the lemon-pepper seasoning.

The shrimp platter ($12.99) offers a big, messy tumble of the staple, the best of which are jumbo sized, fried in a shredded-coconut batter and served with barely sweet plum sauce. The medium-size fried Gulf shrimp and popcorn shrimp are fine, but they pale in comparison. Skip the snoozy shrimp cocktail in favor of the coconut-shrimp dinner ($9.99), which is cheaper.

Service was friendly, but it was so sporadic that we finally resorted to flagging down a staff member who wasn't our waiter in order to ask for the check.

As we exited into the night, we knew our table wouldn't stay empty for long. Joe's Crab Shack may come up short in a couple of areas, but a lack of customers is definitely not one of them.

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