Think of it as Red Lobster with an attitude. The hottest restaurant in the Twin Cities these days is a chain seafood restaurant in Maple Grove.
There's no lack of dining choices in the sprawling shop-and-eat franchiseland around Weaver Lake Rd. and Interstate Hwy. 94. Hops, Stuart Anderson's Cattle Company, Don Pablo's, Burger King, Famous Dave's and others are all nearby, but eager diners wait for up to three hours for a table at Joe's Crab Shack.
On my first visit to Joe's, my dining companion was surprised by the antics of our theatrical young server. I said I thought she was just part of the "eatertainment" -- into the role, and into the groove. By the end of the evening, when half a dozen other servers jumped up on chairs and started clapping rhythmically as a clean-cut young waiter shook his booty and led the diners in a chorus of the Village People's "Macho Man," it seemed like everybody was in the groove. The customers get into the act, as well -- at one table where a birthday was being celebrated, one of the males donned a grass skirt and coconut-shell bra and performed an impromptu hula.
I usually hate eatertainment, but that's because at most of the high-concept theme restaurants, the food is mediocre and the entertainment is pretty thin -- do you really need to experience the Rainforest Cafe or Cafe Odyssey twice?
At Joe's Crab Shack, the entertainment is a little more spirited, and the food is actually pretty good. The crab cake ($6.99) was big and moist and consisted mostly of genuine crab meat. Accompanied by French fries, it was almost a meal in itself. The crab balls (six for $4.99, with fries) had more breading, but were just as tasty. The jalapeño poppers (six for $5.99), stuffed with crab and cheese, were way too spicy for me, but the deep-fried calamari ($6.99) brought back fond memories of Howard Johnson's fried clams.
Several steaks are offered; my companion's New York strip ($14.99), ordered medium rare, was surprisingly juicy and flavorful. So was the fish kebabs ($12.99), composed of big skewered slabs of tuna, salmon and mahi-mahi. These three fish can also be ordered by themselves, accompanied by parsley potatoes and the vegetable of the day (fresh green beans on one visit, carrots on another). A large dinner salad costs an additional 69 cents.
I really enjoyed the three succulent scallops on my fisherman's platter ($9.99), but everything else on the plate seemed like filler, including the generous quantities of breaded popcorn shrimp and French fries, and the fish fillet breaded in cornmeal -- none of it was bad, but none of it was memorable. The broiled seafood platter ($13.99) was a better choice -- abundant shrimp served broiled, fried and in a scampi garlic sauce, plus perfectly cooked catfish fillets, a couple of broiled scallops, crisp green beans and coleslaw.
The Dungeness crabs (a pound-and-a-half for $16.99) were a letdown; the portion was ample, but the meat had little flavor. The sweet, succulent snow crab legs (a pound-and-a-half for $12.99) were better; you can also get a half-pound side order with any entree for $3.99.
Of course, Joe's isn't a real crab shack -- just a cartoon version made for cloning in endless suburban iterations. Everything is portion-controlled, and most of the seafood is frozen. The real crab shacks that you might find in a Louisiana bayou or along the Maryland shore would have fresh fish, and live crabs, clams or oysters. Reportedly, some of the Joe's Crab Shacks in southern states actually have specialties like etouffee on their menus; it would be great to see those offered here, too.
The decor is an impossibly jumbled clutter of everything from beer coasters to bicycles. A giant rubber shark hangs from the ceiling, and a life-size cutout of Bill Clinton is nailed to the ceiling. The decibel level ranges from merely noisy to slightly below the Metrodome during a Vikings game, and the overall effect is one giant raucous fraternity party.
Another Joe's Crab Shack is scheduled to open this summer in Roseville.