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Thursday, April 14, 2011

No. 25: Salt-and-Pepper Crab at Kam Lok

Posted By on Thu, Apr 14, 2011 at 12:04 PM

Kam Lok's salt-and-pepper crab, part of a $38 "harmonized" meal. - JONATHAN KAUFFMAN
  • Jonathan Kauffman
  • Kam Lok's salt-and-pepper crab, part of a $38 "harmonized" meal.

SFoodie's countdown of our 92 favorite things to eat and drink in San Francisco, 2011 edition.


If you look hard enough you'll find Kam Lok halfway down Washington Street's steepest stretch, then down another flight of stairs. Like most of the city's hundreds of family-style Cantonese restaurants, the scope of the menu is far grander than the size of the place, and Kam Lok wears its age frankly ― no Botox, no rejuvenating eyecreams or hair dyes. Look closer: Despite the unflattering lighting, the walls of Kam Lok's fish tank are clear and the tables aren't sticky. Another plus: few tourists.

Under the glass on top of your table, you'll spot the restaurant's set menus, printed out in both Chinese and English. The $38 "harmonized" crab meal will provide four people with more food than they'd order a la carte: a blandish chicken and corn soup; gooey-crisp Peking spare ribs; baby mustard greens stir-fried with garlic; beef with peppers, onions, and pineapple ― the sweet and savory, crispy and braised, turn out to be well harmonized, with red, green, and gold appearing in even proportion. The food seems pleasant and homey, if not striking. Then the salt-and-pepper crab arrives.

If you, like SFoodie, have speared your esophagus with shell shards enough times to tense up when confronted with salt-and-pepper crab, relax: Kam Lok's version is so beautifully prepared that it makes the patient labor of dissecting the Dungeness worthwhile. Start with the biggest chunks, the joints where the legs meet the carapace. Nibble through the salty, thin batter ― a sort of second shell, which remains crackling and delicate up until the end ― and you hit a pocket of sweet, white, aromatic flesh. You'll soon find yourself using a chopstick to ferret out the remaining meat, occasionally popping a spark of fried green pepper or toasted garlic in with it.

Then move on to the legs, quickly cracking the joints with your teeth, then prying apart the shell with your thumbs to get at the long strands underneath. If you notice your tablemates looking around the room, steal the largest claw, whose meat is moistest and most translucent. Flip the carapace over to expose a flat expanse of crisp batter, which caps a few nuggets of the crab's pungent, succulent lungs and guts. It's hardly the most refined way to eat a Dungeness crab, but you're hardly the most refined diner. Besides, salt-and-pepper crab is a San Francisco tradition dating back farther than any of us can remember. Best yet: No one makes you wear a bib.

Kam Lok: 834 Washington (at Waverly), 421-8102.

Dishes in our series so far:

92: Goat tacos from El Norteño
91: Faux shark's fin soup at Benu
90: Esperpento's alcachofas a la plancha
89: Poco Dolce's olive oil chocolate bar
88: Decantr's chicken-liver mousseline
87: Outerlands' levain bread
86: Fraîche's frozen yogurt
85: Gyro King's spinach pie
84: Tandoori fish from Lahore Karahi
83: Braised oxtail and daikon from Namu
82: Golden Gate Bakery's custard tarts
81: Commonwealth's cured foie gras with umeboshi purée
80: Star Stream's Liège-style waffle
79: Mexican hot chocolate from La Oaxaqueña
78: Meatball sandwich from Mario's Bohemian Cigar Store Cafe
77: Cheesecake from Zanze's
76: Chicken pepian at San Miguel
75: Macau iced coffee at Vega/Special Xtra
74: Comstock Saloon's Pisco Punch
73: Hai Ky Mi Gia's duck leg noodle soup
72: Sauerbraten at Walzwerk
71: Boudin noir at Cafe Bastille
70: Blackstrap molasses gingerbread at Lotta's Bakery
69: Plow's crispy potatoes
68: Prospect's Catcher in the Rye
67: Pork banh mi from Little Vietnam Cafe
66: Nakaochi at Ippuku
65: Sidekick's chocolate spritzer
64: Farmhouse Culture's horseradish-leek sauerkraut
63: Destination Baking Co.'s challah
62: Cotogna's roasted carrots
61: Hard Knox Cafe's chicken and waffles
60: The Rebel Within from Tell Tale Preserve Co.
59: The Slanted Door's Whiskey Cocktail
58: Carnitas burrito from Taqueria San Francisco
57: Sakura mochi from Benkyodo
56: Birria at Gallardos
55: BBQ pork skewers at Fil-Am Cuisine
54: JapaCurry's katsu curry
53: Vegan flan at Gracias Madre
52: Cinderella Bakery's pelmeni
51: Locavore's maple andouille sausage
50: Lumpia from Hapa SF
49: Moonlight Brewing's Reality Czeck
48: Filetti pizza at Una Pizza Napoletana
47: Pupusas revueltas at La Santaneca
46: Khoresht ghaymeh at Maykadeh
45: Los Muertos at Gitane
44: Sandwich cookies from Sweet Constructions
43: Nicasio Valley Cheese Company's square
42: Nopalito's quesadilla roja
41: Croissant from Sandbox Bakery
40: Cultured's burdock kasu-zuke pickles
39: Sticky chewy chocolate ice cream at Swensen's
38: Maverick's warm Brussels sprouts with slow-cooked egg
37: Roast chicken from Limón Rotisserie
36: Seven Hills' raviolo uovo
35: Morning bun from Pinkie's Bakery
34: Kaw soi dok at Mandalay
33: Fatted Calf's meatloaf sandwich
32: Duck larb at Thai House Express
31: Lark Creek Steak's burger
30: Barbacco's chicken thighs with olives and almonds
29: Mow Lee's lap cheong
28: Dollar oysters at Bar Crudo
27: Fava greens from Tairwa'-Knoll Farms
26: Nopa's mussels with harissa

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Follow me at @JonKauffman.
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