Cafe Society

Joe's Crab Shack has new steampots -- at a sobering price

I hadn't been to Joe's Crab Shack in well over a decade -- not since that time in Missouri when I may have gotten sauced and horked in the men's room urinal (as it turns out, those clever little porcelain wall sconces are just the right height for spontaneous beverage-expulsion exercises). But I recall the meal I had before "The Incident" as being pretty great. I had wolfed down a steaming pot of crab legs, corn on the cob, red potatoes boiled in their little jackets, and washed it all down with a few too many top-shelf margaritas. The bartender at that particular Shack location made a fine margarita -- too fine. The older, less drunk, socially responsible me recently stopped by the Joe's Crab Shack at 14025 East Evans Avenue in Aurora, so that could try out a couple of the new steampots. The crab-slingers at Joe's have rolled out a couple of new seafood steampots, the Santolla and the Arctic Bay, and put their KJ Steampot in the featured-item spotlight. Apparently the KJ stands for Kendall Jackson, which I find to be a less-than-enjoyable drinking Chardonnay -- too dry and oaky for my taste -- but I had an inkling that the qualities I don't like when sipping KJ would work well in a broth for steamed seafood.

During my weekday visit, this Joe's was fairly quiet -- at least, as quiet as a place can be with blaring '80s music and a really pissed-off toddler at the table catty-corner from my booth. It looked like the poor mom and dad were trying a "date-night" type scenario but didn't wanna spring for a sitter, which meant that the handful of tables and smattering of bar-sitters got to soak in the angry wails from the shortie while his parentals tried desperately to placate him with a sausage from one of their steampots. What kid turns down sausage? Maybe the kid was a mini-vegan.

Steamposts aside, the Joe's menu hadn't changed much since my last visit: fish, lobster, mussels, clams, shrimp and plenty of crabs. I started with the Crazy Good Crab Dip, ordered the KJ and the Santolla steampots, and decided to try the Key lime pie, too.

The décor hadn't changed much, either, and the indoor-patio theme seemed a little weird when I wasn't in the middle of a bunch of wasted partiers. But this way, I got to notice how good the service was. My server even handed me an extra paper bib, which I planned to spatter with crab and bits of corn.

My appetizer came quickly -- in under ten minutes. The hot, cheesy dip was super-salty, as were the chips -- but at least the dip contained actual crab, rather than the surimi stuff you sometimes get in non-seafood restaurants. And it was nicely seasoned with red bell pepper, which turned it into a baked deviled crab dip.

Steampots ahoy! I was mopping up the last dip when both steampots arrived. I started with the KJ pot because there were three grilled scallops in shells garnishing the top, and I was glad I ate them first: They were seared, tender, wood-grilled smoky, and it would have been a pity to let them get cold.

This pot had a mix of snow crab and mussels, a whole ear of corn and a fistful of red potatoes, but no sausage. The wine broth tasted just as good as it smelled -- garlic and citrus -- and imparted a savory, tangy flavor to everything. I prefer snow crab to king crab; although I recognize that digging the meat out of the shells is supposed to be fun and rewarding, I get impatient, and snow crab shells are thinner and easier to rip into to get at the good stuff.

The Santolla had a broth that was light on garlic but heavy as hell on the Old Bay seasoning, and held a polite smattering of steamed clams, meatuy New Zealand green lip mussels, plenty of peel-and-eat boiled shrimp and a huge steamed sausage with a modest heat-kick.

After making a major dent in the steampots, I attempted dessert. The Key lime pie wasn't worth the effort: Although the portion was huge, the crust was soggy, the whipped topping was oily, and the filling was too tart.

Something about Joe's Crab Shack that certainly had changed since my last visit was the size of the bill at the end: The steampots used to be in the $15 to $25 range, and now they are in the $25 to $35 price range.

If I had been soused, the check would have sobered me up fast.

That's quite a jump, and the portions don't seem to have increased in size. Still the seafood is above-average, and if you skip the alcohol, you won't have to mortgage your condos to cover the tab -- or pay your bail after you're arrested for trespassing in the men's bathroom.