San Francisco doesn’t seem to have any one iconic sandwich, so I have a claw to pick — why aren’t Dungeness crab melts a bigger deal? Maine has its lobster rolls, and Maryland has its soft shell crab. We are a major port city, with a gorgeous wild ingredient, which was once pulled straight out of the Bay. So why isn’t it starring in an iconic seafood sandwich?
“I wish I had a crab melt right now,” my mother says wistfully. I was grilling her about where she liked to eat crab melts when my parents lived near Fisherman’s Wharf in the 80s. I was born in SF, but grew up in Portland, so my family goes crabbing at the Oregon Coast every summer, pulling flailing crustaceans into motorboats, steaming them with artichokes, and drowning them in butter. To my mother, the perfect sandwich comes from one specific seafood market in Cannon Beach, where the Dungeness is freshly cracked, the meat gets cool mayo, the bread gets hot butter, and it’s all melded with sharp Cheddar.
I have never met a crab melt of its equal in San Francisco. But even at their finest, crab melts can be divisive. “No, absolutely not,” says my best food friend, who is Bay Area raised, and the kind of purist who objects to lightly torched omakase, let alone fully adulterated sushi rolls. “All of that hot mayo and cheese? Not in my crab. No thank you.”
Or maybe there are just too many options when it comes to crab sandwiches. Because of course, there are good crab sandwiches around town, they’re just not necessarily the melts that my family loves. Especially during Dungeness season, which to be clear, won’t come around for another couple of months. But it never hurts to be prepared, right? Grab some napkins. Here are a few strong crab contenders.
If you want a crab melt, it can be found. The Buena Vista Cafe, across the street from where my old man used to swim at the Dolphin Club, has a reasonable Dungeness crab melt. Stormin’ Norman prefers a patty melt after a cold swim, and I myself skip the plunge and go straight to a strong Irish coffee. But on closer inspection, the crab melt is good. Two crab cakes, on tourist sourdough (Boudin or Boudin equivalent), with gooey melted Swiss, and fries on the side.
Woodhouse Fish Co., with locations on Market and Fillmore, had a crab melt on the menu for a long time, but swapped it out a year ago for a crab roll. “We’ve sold a lot of crab sandwiches,” says co-owner Dylan MacNiven. The melt “was a crab salad, with melted cheddar on top, on a split-top roll, buttered and toasted on both sides.” Oh, my mother would have approved. Sadly, as Dungeness has gotten more expensive, they reconsidered. “We were taking this ultra premium product, and mixing it with mayo and throwing cheese on it … It just wasn’t feeling right to charge over $20 dollars for something that cheesy and gooey.”
But they still felt strongly about keeping a Dungeness crab sandwich on the menu in San Francisco. The melt became tuna, and the crab now stars in a roll, simply dressed in butter. The crab is always sweet and fresh, never frozen, or their fish-loving customers would sniff them out straight away. The crab roll costs just a touch less than the lobster roll, and the lobster roll sells way better, to the tune of more than a thousand a day at Outside Lands. But why?! “Lobster has a broader American appeal than Dungeness crab,” says MacNiven. “We’ve tried to market Dungeness, and it’s really a niche thing.”
Billingsgate is a new seafood counter coming soon to Noe Valley, permits and pandemic willing. The storefront is an extension of Four Star Seafood, a local wholesaler, and they’re currently installing tanks for live crab and lobster. “They can be really good, but a crab melt isn’t my favorite,” says co-owner Adrian Hoffman. He’s skipping over both the melts and the rolls in favor of an open-faced sandwich, featuring a thick slice of brioche, clean crab tossed with creme fraiche and tarragon, topped with grapefruit and watercress. It does sound light and lovely, while still hitting those buttery and creamy notes. And for the real carb haters, yeah, okay, you can also get it on butter lettuce.