40-42 College Point Boulevard, Flushing, NY (map); 718-353-8188; crazycrabny.com
Setting: Sparse room with some pizza parlor trim from a previous occupant
Service: Friendly and fast with a slight language barrier
Compare To: The Boil, Yunnan Flavor Garden...sort of
Must-Haves: Ginger salad, yellow tofu salad, Thai-spiced fried chicken
Cost: Seafood $9-24/pp; other dishes $10-15
Recommendation: Recommended with reservations. A bizarre and delightful cross-cultural adventure, provided you know what to order.
New York is home to all sorts of oddball fusion restaurants, from lo-fi Chexican storefronts pressing flour tortillas to the more deliberate Jewish-Japanese mashup at Shalom Japan in Williamsburg. But I'm not sure I've ever encountered a multi-hyphenate offering as many cuisines as Crazy Crab, which I can only describe as a Burmese-Yunnanese-Thai-Malaysian restaurant masquerading as a Cajun seafood shack.
If that sounds weird, it's because it is. An inauspicious location adjacent to the noisy LIRR tracks and less-than-zero-frills décor didn't do much to lessen the sensation that I'd somehow just stumbled into some sort of fusion-food Brigadoon. But the service was friendly straight off the bat, as our young waiter patiently helped guide our group through a menu seemingly constructed without rhyme or reason.
The key to a successful experience at Crazy Crab is twofold: flexibility and knowledge. If you're looking for a full-blown Burmese or Yunnanese experience, you will be disappointed, as the menu offers only a handful of dishes from each cuisine. And if you're in the market for a legit Cajun seafood fiesta, then I have to ask what exactly you're doing in Flushing. But if you enter Crazy Crab with a plan of attack, an open mind, and a willingness to make a cross-cultural mess on your plate, you won't leave disappointed.
To honor Crazy Crab's namesake, you should order some combination of boiled seafood ($9-24 per pound), less for the quality of the shellfish itself (middling), and more for the two S's that accompany every order: the spectacle and the sauce.* The former is an endearingly fussy ceremony of disposable bibs and gloves, followed by a ceremonial dumping of a giant plastic trash bag full of steaming-hot crustaceans before you. The latter is a thick, oily homemade chili gravy, pooling in ample volume toward the bottom of the bag, which you'll want to keep handy for spooning over rice or other fried bits you order.
*There are three sauce options, all homemade: lemon pepper, garlic butter, and Cajun. Get the Cajun.
From there it's a matter of correctly parsing through the non-boiled-seafood items, which range from Burmese salads to pad Thai. Oh, and did I mention that every meal starts off with a complimentary bowl of crisp Sichuan-esque pickled vegetables? Because we might as well throw some of those flavors into the mix, too.
I'd recommend starting with a trio of Burmese-style mixed salads, which, unfortunately for New Yorkers, is the maximum number of Burmese-style mixed salads I've ever seen on one menu. The most well-known is Tea Leaf Salad ($9.95), with a base of slippery, earthy-tasting fermented tea leaves imported from Burma mixed with a healthy portion of a hallmark of Burmese cuisine: Random Crunchy Things (in this case, roasted peanuts, fried beans, crispy shallots and garlic, and raw cabbage). Better is the Ginger Salad ($8.95), which trades the tea leaves for mild young ginger and comes dressed in a lively lime dressing.
The most esoteric of the menu is the Yunnan Yellow Tofu Salad ($10.99), though it's essentially indistinguishable from Shan-style tofu I had in Burma (which makes sense —Shan State, the largest province in Burma, borders Yunnan province in China, where one of the Burma-born owners of Crazy Crab has family). It's made from yellow split peas ground into a powder, mixed with water, then steamed until it sets into a jiggly yolk-colored blob. For the salad, cubes of the tofu (in itself, fairly bland) are served room-temperature in a refreshing dressing of soy sauce and rice vinegar, topped with roasted peanuts, crushed chili, garlic, and a mountain of fresh cilantro. Those with texture-based aversions (like, ahem...me) may not like the smooth, gelatinous texture of the tofu itself, but it's hard to deny the pleasure of a single bite combining the tofu with the all the other crunchy-fresh-spicy-salty things going on.
That same yellow tofu can be had deep fried ($10.99), in puffy little nuggets with an airy texture ideal for soaking up the accompanying chili dipping sauce laced with garlic and dried shrimp. Save some of that sauce (or better yet, use the Cajun seafood sauce you're still hoarding) for the Fried Cucumbers ($8.99), which look like fishsticks gone awry and taste of little beyond batter.
The best use of the deep-fryer goes to the Thai-spiced Chicken with Chili Sauce ($9.99), a recommendation from our waiter that I initially doubted, then quickly came to love. I'm not entirely sure what makes this dish Thai, but given the cultural confusion across the menu, I didn't press the issue. I was also too busy shoveling bite-sized hunks of crispy chicken in a tangy-hot soy-chili-garlic sauce down my gullet to care. Even after the chicken cools and the sauce begins to creep beneath its once-crisp shell, it's a pleasure to eat.
While the fried chicken sings with top-note flavor, the Yunnanese Rice Noodle Soup with pork ($9.99) is a more grounded affair, rich and earthy with a chicken and spare rib broth and laced with little shards of pork that were presumably once attached to the broth bones. Topped with pickled vegetables and yet more fresh cilantro, it's a homey, comforting bowl, if less exciting than the complexly-flavored salads and fried things before it. But it pairs well with the pungent Malaysian-style Water Spinach ($11.99), smothered in belacan (shrimp paste) and sambal.
There may still be gems on Crazy Crab's menu that I've yet to uncover, but meals there are a gamble —it's wise to go in a large group to maximize your chances of success. Food aside, it's almost worth it for the experience alone —where else but New York can you find such a screwball mishmash of a menu? If you go in prepared—and prepared for a few surprises—you've already won.