Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Picking Crabs at Mai's Restaurant in Eden Center

Picking Crabs in Eden Center

How's this for a dining adventure?

Eden Center, the capital of Northern Virginia's Vietnamese universe, is packed with more than a hundred shops and restaurants. It's located in the Seven Corners area on Wilson Boulevard. The outside strip mall of Eden Center is striped with unusual shops, many labeled only in Vietnamese to leave English-only speakers guessing.

Inside Eden Center is a mall, with everything from internet cafes to hair salons to offices to music stores. And restaurants, of course.

We found ourselves inside Eden Center Mall hungry for Pho (Vietnamese noodle soup) and peeking into the windows of Mai's Restaurant for a menu, but there was none to be found. A sign in the window indicated "Live Crabs".

A little intimidated, we began to creep away. But we were intercepted by cheerful middle-aged woman who insisted that Mai's Restaurant was the place for us. She put her hands on our shoulders and led us inside, asked Mai give us a table, and promptly left the restaurant waving a happy goodbye.

Mai took our order. The menu? Steamed crabs, crab wontons, and crab stew -- that's it. Mai explained that his restaurant does just one thing very well: crabs. He serves blue crabs from North Carolina, which (according to Mai) are much tastier than the ones in Maryland and the Chesapeake. They awaited us, alive, in crates at the front of the restaurant.

So we had the steamed crabs. Clearly this was not a time for cowardice. This was a time for picking crabs. It was four o'clock on a Friday, and we were the only patrons in the restaurant, although several people came in to buy live crabs and crabmeat from the front register.

We watched Mai fill a bucket with our first nine male crabs, who were still rather aggressively fighting for their lives, then take them back to the kitchen. Mail said that most crab restaurants steam their crabs in a large batch, then reheat them later for customers. But he cooks them live per order, so they take longer (twenty minutes). Intrigued, we were happy to wait at our table chatting with Mai off and on about crab and non-crab subjects.

Our crabs arrived with very few extras -- no garlic butter, etc -- just a taste of Old Bay and some limes on the side. Mai said when you cook good crabs right, you don't want to cover up the taste.

He was right. We aren't frequent crab eaters, but these are the best ones we'd had by far: large, tender, sweet, and juicy. We had eighteen of them between the two of us at the all-you-can-eat cost of $25 each.

So if you can find your way through the bowels of Eden Center into Mai's Restaurant, give it a try. It's certainly an adventure in crab picking, and is well worth the expedition.

Mai's Restaurant
6763 Wilson Boulevard, Falls Church, VA 22044 (map)
703 237 2020


Anonymous sheridan said...

This was a very entertaining read and longer than your usual format... I really enjoyed it! That said, I'm not a big crab-picker, but if we find ourselves there, I might not be able to stop myself from trying it!

7:33 AM  
Blogger Christian M. said...

Thanks! I wouldn't be doing the experience justice in the usual short format. It was very memorable. Glad someone read it :-)

You could always have the wontons or soup, and try one of our crabs if you're inspired to. I want to go back and take more photos at Eden Center sometime, too.

9:12 AM  

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