From the looks of the location, the low-slung building on Bristol Street near Macarthur Boulevard in Santa Ana ought to be a prime spot for an eatery. A decent amount of parking surrounds it, and street visibility is good; South Coast Plaza and its surrounding office towers stand one block south. An In-N-Out routinely snarls traffic one block north. But the reality is the site has stunk of failure for years. A sushi bar called Bluefish didn't last long. The one that came after that, a California Fish Grill copycat named Fish Grill Factory, went belly-up before anyone noticed. Even as the latest tenant, the Kickin' Crab, moved in, whispers labeled the place as cursed.
But so far, so good. This newest contender seems to be on steadier sea legs than those that came before. The Kickin' Crab might just stick around awhile, breaking the spell and proving that something, anything, can survive here.
We've seen the likes of the Kickin' Crab before. It aspires to replicate the success of the Boiling Crab, the undisputed Vietnamese-Cajun crawfish pack leader that now boasts the longest waits for seafood in the county. In fact, in addition to this Santa Ana outpost, the Kickin' Crab is opening a second location in Garden Grove to challenge the Boiling Crab on its turf. Like others, the Kickin' Crab is born from the same gold-rush mentality that always spurs the why-not-me entrepreneurs into opening frozen-yogurt shops, cupcakeries and gleaming luxe loncheras during the heat of the craze. The drive of the Kickin' Crab's owners and others like them should be examined as case studies for business schools: What motivates these people to enter a crowded market full of also-rans when the best they can hope for is to be considered just-as-good? Other crawfish competitors are already subjects of online reviews summarizing their entire existence as the lack of lines
Open Mon.-Fri., 3-10 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., noon-10 p.m. Shrimp, $8.99 per pound; other crustaceans, market price. Beer.
In truth, the Kickin' Crab has it easier than most. The previous tenant, being seafood-focused itself, left behind nautical theming and surfing motifs, something the Kickin' Crab is more than happy to exploit as its own. And the recipe for the product it peddles—spicy-sauce-steeped seafood—is hardly a closely guarded secret. It's a formula the Boiling Crab all but gives away. To taste the Kickin' Crab's shrimp and crawfish is to taste the same amalgamation of butter, garlic, lemon and Cajun seasoning the Boiling Crab has proven to be magical when applied to an entire subphylum of crustaceans. The sauce is also marvelous when dribbled over rice.
No matter what sea critter you choose, to opt for anything but the sauce that has all of the above components would be like cheating yourself. No one I know bothers with the plain lemon pepper. The Boiling Crab calls its concoction "The Whole Sha-Bang," but the Kickin' Crab simply goes with "Kickin' Style." Both serve seafood soaked in the sauce and packaged in plastic bags. A bib is tied around your neck and wax paper laid out to protect tables from the eminent crab-eating carnage. The first thing to get is the shrimp. Its high meat-to-effort ratio is the best value for the buck. Since you're actually paying for the part you throw away more than the part you eat, choose the lower yields of the fresh crawfish second. For sauce, asking for mild is sufficient; dare to go hotter, and OSHA-approved goggles should be required, lest the caustic stuff splash into your eye and render you blind.
At the Kickin' Crab, as at the Boiling Crab, the fun is in getting your palms thoroughly greased with the red-tinged sauce and your fingernails jammed thick with garlicky gunk and crab innards. This, I think, is the reason why so many young people flock to such places, as well as why they are staffed by youthful types. It plays to our basest kid instincts, indulging us the urge to eat with our hands before Emily Post-imposed manners got in the way. You feel empowered when you're decapitating each shrimp and crawfish. Then you feel naughty squeezing them like tubes of toothpaste, sucking the fatty goods from their skulls, disrobing the shells and taking the sweet tail meat for one last dunk before consuming and repeating the whole process. And it's a cheap thrill, too, one for which you needn't spend a fortune on the lobster or the overpriced king-crab legs to experience.
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Those squeamish and without the manual dexterity to navigate a shrimp's anatomy will have a few easy-to-eat alternatives. The clams come practically served on their own individual spoons, squiggly, sweet and so fresh they seem to squeak when you scrape them off their shells with your teeth. Boiled red potatoes and thickly sliced andouille sausages also taste better when soaked in that sauce. But those who'd rather not get a speck of hot sauce on their pretty little hands can eat the offerings provided by the deep fryer. Cajun red-pepper seasoning crunchy with granulated sugar covers the fried-chicken hot wings. Breaded fish triangles that could easily be classified as nuggets and limp, fast-food-style fries dusted with the now-familiar Cajun seasoning become worthy fish-and-chips proxies. Lemon and cocktail sauce rescue raw Gulf oysters from boredom and flatness. And though watery, the Kickin' Crab simmers a surprisingly fresh gumbo, with more of those sausages, shrimp and celery that manages to maintain its integrity.
So is the Kickin' Crab as good as the Boiling Crab? Damn straight. And yes, for now, there are no lines.
This review appeared in print as "Crustacean Nation: A new Vietnamese-Cajun seafood joint joins the trend and tries to break the curse of its location."