The Strange Case of the Disappearing Gulf Crab

Seafood salad's salad days.

By Robb Walsh Photography by Shannon O'Hara September 3, 2013 Published in the September 2013 issue of Houstonia Magazine

The Sicilia salad at Trevisio

The other evening, I got an elegant jumbo lump crabmeat salad at a famous old-line Houston seafood restaurant. The crabmeat looked incredible, with lots of huge snow-white lumps, but it didn’t taste right. My waiter said it was from Matagorda Bay. 

So I took a cell phone photo of the crabmeat and texted the image to Jim Gossen, the founder of the state’s largest seafood company, Louisiana Foods, and asked him what kind of crab it was. Gossen’s company sells thousands of pounds of crabmeat a week, so he knows what’s out there.

“Pasteurized,” read his reply, which meant that it wasn’t from here. “See the dark side up in the knuckle of the body. That is a good indication. Indonesian is better than the Chinese product. Chinese has a poor taste in my opinion.”

Seafood salad is one of my favorite hot-weather meals—it’s a light, refreshing lunch or dinner that makes you feel like you’re indulging when you’re actually dieting. But the first thing we Houstonians think of when someone says “seafood salad” is the classic jumbo-lump-crabmeat version. And sadly, our city’s signature salad, once one of my favorites, lately has gone lame. Old-time barbecue crab shacks on the coast and restaurants that have long-standing arrangements with crabbers might get some local crab, but not Houston seafood restaurants.

“As far as I know, you can’t buy Texas crabmeat in Houston,” Gossen says. In fact, the entire nation is in denial when it comes to crabs. Houston waiters and chefs don’t really know what species of crab comes in the little plastic tubs they get from wholesalers—only country of origin. Meanwhile, in Maryland, they wax poetic about the bounty of the Chesapeake while they eat crabs from Texas and Louisiana. 

It’s fun to pretend. But the entire Chesapeake Bay produces only around 600,000 pounds of crab a year, nowhere near enough to supply the crab-crazed mid-Atlantic market. Jumbo crabs sell for at least $60 a dozen in Maryland crab houses, and a local crabber told me that the wholesale price for big male crabs in that state is $30 a dozen. Very few Texans are ready to pay those kinds of prices. So nearly all of the more than three million pounds worth of crab harvested annually in Texas goes to Maryland, and the only local crabs left are the tiny live ones you see in Asian markets and soft shells that still fetch top dollar here.  

Since our crab is getting shipped east, the lump crabmeat on our salads is imported. Picking crab is labor-intensive, so it’s cheaper to produce lump crabmeat in Mexico and Asia. Some of the imported blue crabmeat from other parts of the Gulf of Mexico tastes fine. But that bright white, colossal lump crabmeat that looks so good and tastes so blah is either a species from Baja California closely related to blue crab or pasteurized crab of various species from Asia. The Baja crab is so-so, but washed and pasteurized Asian crab doesn’t taste like much of anything.

Ever since the locavore thing got going, Houston food lovers have started paying attention to where our seafood comes from. A few cutting-edge restaurants like Oxheart, Underbelly, Reef, Cove, Haven, and Kata Robata are buying as much local seafood as they can get and slowly changing our perceptions about Gulf fish and oysters for the better. But our local crab is part of an enormous global market, and even these restaurants don’t offer it. It wouldn’t be that hard to start a locavore crab business—if somebody with a crab boat wanted to act as a supplier and Houston restaurants were willing to pay Maryland prices for Texas crabs. 

There’s a seafood conference in Galveston later this month that will bring chefs and fishermen together to explore such ideas and to look for opportunities to change the way Gulf seafood is marketed. Look for a full report in a future issue of Houstonia. But in the meantime, where does a seafood salad junkie go to get his fix these days? Here are my favorite versions of this dish in Houston—with my top pick at the end.

The lobster salad at L’Olivier 

The lobster salad at L'Olivier

Do you think lobsters and scallops imported from New England are more local than crabmeat imported from Indonesia and China? If so, you have to put this lobster salad near the top of your seafood salad list. On a colorful glass plate, half a lobster with meat loosened for easy eating curls its tail around a bed of butter lettuce, mizuna, yellow cherry tomatoes, and cucumber squares. The claw meat is removed from the shell and perched on top of the vivid greens.

Salad Jaco at Salé Sucré

If you’re a fan of that other New England import, the bay scallop, check out this dish. The menu name is a play on coquilles Saint-Jacques, the French name for scallops. The salad features juicy pan-seared scallops on frisée and other fresh greens with a tart vinaigrette and a garnish of caramelized onions that combine to make for a distinctive salty-sweet flavor.

Ciro’s insalata di mare

If you like dinner-size seafood salads, Italy’s are hard to beat. Gossen recommended the version at Ciro’s on I-10 at Bunker Hill in Spring Branch. The insalata di mare is described on the menu as a “seafood wedge salad,” but the “wedge” is actually a whole head of romaine dressed with balsamic vinaigrette and a drizzle of pesto. Beside the lettuce, there are tomato slices, jumbo shrimp, a couple of steamed mussels, and a luscious pile of chopped baby squid marinated in herbs and olive oil. It wasn’t only a bargain, it was one of the most filling seafood salads I tried. 

Insalata di frutti di mare at Coppa

Salad Jaco at Salé Sucreé

This salad at Coppa on Washington Ave. is an upscale variation on the same theme. Here, the marinated seafood blend includes lobster along with the shrimp and calamari. Sweet sliced campari tomatoes are served alongside a flavorful, refreshing herb blend that includes torn basil leaves, fresh mint leaves, mizuna, and arugula. It’s a little more expensive, but the flavors are molto grandi

Sicilia Salad at Trevisio

My colleague at Houstonia, Katharine Shilcutt, recommended this sensational salad—a simple plate of fresh frisée in a light, citrusy vinaigrette with peeled orange sections, slices of meaty Castelvetrano olives, crunchy fennel, and heirloom tomatoes topped with four or five fillets of delicately flavored white anchovies. (If you think of anchovies as salty, stinky, nasty little things, try one of these unsalted beauties.) This one might have been my top pick, but it’s not really big enough to count as an entrée—unless you have a lighter appetite than I do.

Que Huong’s grilled giant prawn salad

#241 at Que Huong

Classic Vietnamese restaurant Que Huong recently moved from cramped quarters on Beechnut to an expansive corner location in the Hong Kong City Mall. There are ten goi (cold salad) dishes on the menu there, six containing seafood. I’m irrationally fond of Que Huong’s jellyfish seafood salad (#238, goi sua do bien). This one is loaded with noodle-like jellyfish strands, steamed squid, mussels, and shrimp—with a wonderful dipping sauce of fish sauce, fresh lime juice, and chile peppers on the side. Unfortunately, the jellyfish salad also contains a lot of rubbery fish balls and fake crab. 

So my top pick in Houston is Que Huong’s grilled giant prawn salad (#241, goi ngo sen tom nuong). It features deveined jumbo shrimp, marinated and lightly charred on the grill, over a salad of crunchy shaved lotus stems, carrots, celery, red onions, and torn rau ram leaves (Vietnamese coriander), tossed in a light vinaigrette. The finished dish is garnished with chopped peanuts and crispy fried onions. 

The nuoc cham sauce served on the side is made of fish sauce, sugar, fresh lime juice, and chiles. Make it your own by adding Sriracha until it’s as spicy as you like it, then pour some over the salad as extra dressing or use it as a dip. You’ll love the combination of the smoky shrimp and the spicy dipping sauce. Be forewarned that this is a high-fiber salad—the lotus stems are so crunchy, I had to stop halfway through to rest my jaws. 

Of course, you have to love chile peppers and funky-smelling fermented fish sauce to appreciate Houston’s new signature seafood salad, but that’s no problem, right? 

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