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Hook, Line and Singer

I'll admit it--I take my kids to McDonald's. Hey, I'm just like any other parent: Sometimes I simply want to feed them fast without messing up the kitchen.

And while I'd rather treat the kids to some place where they--and I--can appreciate good food, Tante Louise does not have a Playplace. So I'm constantly on the lookout for restaurants that are kid-friendly but also serve dishes that do not come wrapped in waxed paper. My most recent discovery is a real catch: Joe's Crab Shack.

The atmosphere is exactly what a kid might dream up if he were asked to invent the perfect restaurant: heavily laminated wooden tables ideal for racing Matchbox cars (added bonus for parents--the tables are indestructible); cool sea-themed knickknacks and trinkets, such as fake oversized lobsters and a great white shark, hanging from the walls and ceiling that make the place look a little like a yacht-club garage sale; noisy patrons, friendly young staffers--including a manager who actually sat down at the table and chatted with my daughters--and loud music. Lots of loud music.

If you've been dying for your kids to learn the macarena but didn't want them to pick up any bad habits at, say, Los Cabos II during happy-hour Latin dance lessons, this is the place. At Joe's, the background music periodically moves into the foreground and assorted waitstaffers climb on top of unoccupied tables, where they start a synchronized song-and-dance routine that usually covers several musical genres (rap, Latin, pop, oldies). Everyone is encouraged to jump up on a table and join in; anyone under the age of twelve usually does. Sometimes even a few seniors get in on the action.

"The whole point here is that it's supposed to be fun," says senior kitchen manager Phil Foley, who's been with the company that owns Joe's for three years. "There are sixteen regional menus, so Denver's is different from the ones on the East Coast, and we get to pick our own songs to dance to, and the staff makes up their own dances. When they're hired, we make it very clear to them that that's part of the job, and we really try to hire only crazy, fun types."

Joe's is a chain--but it's obviously a chain with a few twists. Houston-based Landry's Seafood Inc., which also owns Landry's Seafood House in Englewood (the old H. Brinker's next to I-25) and Willie G's on the 16th Street Mall, bought the Joe's Crab Shack concept almost a decade ago from a private outfit in Texas that had come up with the idea of mixing seafood and fun. Since then, the company's opened eighty Crab Shacks across the country. The Joe's on East Evans in Aurora, which opened in November 1996, is the only one in the metro area (there are two in Colorado Springs); Foley says there's also a restaurant in the works for the corner of Arapahoe and Parker roads.

Okay by me--it'll be closer to my house and thereby easier to get to on those nights when I can't stomach spending any time in the kitchen but still want to get something decent in my stomach. And Joe's doesn't kid around when it comes to seafood: This is food I'd come back for, even if the kids were off visiting grandma.

So which of the sixteen seafood rosters did Colorado get? According to Foley, the Aurora outlet serves a basic menu, without the more frou-frou items, such as conch fritters, that are popular in California. Fortunately, every Joe's offers stone crab claws--unless the little suckers are out of season. Although the claws won't be available again until November, they're worth the wait. Stone crabs come out of the Atlantic Ocean along the Carolinas and Florida, and only the claws are allowed on the market. Joe's sells the stoners by the half and full pound at market price, which, on my last visit in August, was $11.99 for a half-pound. The claws had been steamed until the sweet meat inside the shells had just begun to firm, and every morsel of sweet meat (it's not unlike lobster) was soft and satiny. Dipping the crab in hot melted butter and then popping it into my mouth is about the best escape from the drudgeries of being a housewife that I can think of--or, at least, one of the few such pleasures that can be enjoyed in front of children. My kids loved the claws, too, even without the butter, and I couldn't help but smugly reflect on crab's heart-healthy omega-3 content, its high protein and its low fat. Eat your own heart out, McDonald's.

While the stone crabs on their own are a little pricey, Joe's also includes them in an incredible deal called the crab feast ($21.99 was that day's market price). In addition to two claws, our feast featured four king crab legs, two deep-fried shredded-crab fingers, a fried soft-shell crab, two crab shells stuffed with Old Bay-seasoned crab and shrimp, a cup of medium-spicy crab gumbo, half a cob of corn, and parsley-covered, lightly fried potatoes. While the frying made this array less healthy, it also added a sinful element to the mostly delicious offerings. The only disappointment was the soft-shell crab, smothered in a crumb coating so thick and spicy it might have been covering Kleenex, for all the crab we could taste.

The fried oysters ($9.99 for a dozen), on the other hand, boasted just the right amount of breadcrumbs--which was surprising, since restaurants usually over-batter these babies. We'd fished the wonderful oysters off Joe's list of "seafood favorites for under $10," a deal made even better because each entree comes with your choice of one of ten sides. We'd opted for the coleslaw, a sweet, creamy version with a mix of red and green cabbage and plenty of black pepper.

Although there was more than enough of this good grown-up food to share with the kids, we couldn't resist ordering them their own dinners--at $2.99 each, they run just 50 cents more than a Happy Meal (and come with a lidded plastic cup you can take home). The popcorn shrimp had been encased in a thin batter and fried until golden; the macaroni and cheese contained enough good cheese--no oily residue--to have seriously depleted Wisconsin's stock.

By now, our seafood haul had seriously depleted even adult appetites, but we reeled in a few desserts anyway. The rich, fluffy homemade cheesecake was our favorite, but the peanut butter pie and Key lime pie were also decadent. Each $3.99 piece was large enough to feed two.

On a return visit, we continued to work our way through the menu. Joe's offers Dungeness crab barbecued, steamed or cooked in garlic butter ($12.99); we ordered it barbecued and got two large specimens coated with Joe's fine sweet-and-spicy sauce. And while fish dishes are offered plain, you also can order your swimmer smothered in a special sauce for another $3.99. For instance, to dress up our loin-cut salmon steak ($10.99), we ordered the crawfish-tomato cream sauce; each was good enough to sail solo. The fresh, fresh salmon had been grilled (you can also get it broiled) until the edges and skin were crispy and the center barely done. The sauce was almost a cream soup, studded with crawfish bits. We enjoyed more crawfish in the fine etouffee ($8.99), nicely spiced crustaceans stewed with onions, tomatoes and green peppers and served over rice.

Yes, chains do have some advantages. At Joe's Crab Shack, they include an ample supply of well-prepared seafood. And only a chain would have the money to build a playground like the one you'll find here, with enough equipment to keep my kids occupied for an hour and tire them out so much that they fell asleep in the car on the way home.

That's enough to make any adult meal happy.

Joe's Crab Shack, 14025 East Evans Avenue, Aurora, 303-306-7070. Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday.


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