Nothin' but Net

Steamed Blues, 4843 North Eighth Place, Phoenix, 9662722. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11a.m. to 11 p.m.

People frequently ask me, "Where can I get good seafood?" I tell them: San Francisco, New Orleans, New York.

You don't need a geography degree to figure out that the middle of the Sonoran Desert isn't the world's best spot to hook fresh fish. No one's ever going to see sea gulls swooping over downtown, or greet the fishing fleet docking in the Salt River.

Bringing right-out-of-the-sea aquatic life to the Valley is a costly, labor-intensive operation. The product's short shelf life and the law of supply and demand (Americans are eating more fish than ever) boost prices even higher. That's why the words "inexpensive seafood" cross local lips about as often as "playoff-bound Cardinals" or "snow holiday."

Savvy restaurant entrepreneurs know that there's tremendous pent-up demand here for reasonably priced ocean fare. And that's just what Steamed Blues and Seafood Central, two new seafood houses, are hoping to tap. The question is: Can they keep expenses down and quality up at the same time? It seems to me the answer is yes.

A double-marketing punch should ensure that Steamed Blues fills up with customers. First, diners won't need to visit a loan shark to pay the check. Depending on their appetites, two people should be able to get out of here for $25 to $35. Second, Steamed Blues specializes in live crabs, a hard-to-find treat that's as rare in this town as a cool breeze in August.

The restaurant brings an unlikely Chesapeake Bay look to its off-the-beaten-track location a couple of blocks south of Camelback Road. It's a wood, beachfront-shack structure with a friendly heated patio. Inside, the two rooms are done up in the same woodsy, nautical style that crab houses have used since Noah built the Ark: nets, oars and framed pictures of crabs. Baby-boomer favorites--Bruce Springsteen, Buddy Holly, Johnny Cash--provide aural background.

But you may not hear much of it. That's because you'll be serenaded by the percussive beat of mallets pounding to open steamed blue crabs. It can sound like you're in the middle of the "Anvil Chorus" scene in Il Trovatore.

The restaurant flies in these hard-shell crabs, live, two or three times a week. Depending on the season, they may come from the Gulf or Chesapeake Bay.

There's an indisputable primal pleasure that goes into eating steamed blues. (You order either six or 12--a half-dozen is plenty for two.) Getting at the meat is just about as much fun as swallowing it.

The staffers are happy to show you how. First, they'll cover the table with butcher paper, then they'll bring over wooden mallets, a roll of paper towels and a pail for discards. When your platter arrives, place a crab in front of you and pull off the legs. (Watch out, they're hot.) Then, turn the crab upside down. You'll see a little "tab," like the one on a can of soda pop, which nature had the good sense to attach. Grab on to the top part of the creature (which is now on the bottom) and yank down with one hand while pulling the tab with the other. The evil parts of the crab should all fall out. Toss them in the bucket, and start banging away with your weapon to get at the good stuff.

Not everyone may be tempted by the effort and experience. But the crabmeat is wonderful, and so is the slightly spicy seasoning the kitchen sprinkles on.

If you're not into clubbing your dinner, try the soft-shell crabs. You can get two to an order as a dinner entree, or one on a bun as a sandwich. Either way, there's no waste with these crunchy critters, and they make for good eating, as well.

Since neither the steamed blues nor the soft-shells are terribly filling, it's a good bet most peoplewill dig into the sides that come with them. Fortunately, several of the accompaniments are worth digging into. The"boardwalk" fries--fresh-cut, seasoned, sizzling potatoes--are especially appealing. They actually do resemble the spuds in a cup that you find on East Coast piers. Homemade coleslaw and steamed red potatoes scented with rosemary do the job, too. The potato salad, however, is a lot less enchanting, unless you enjoy mayonnaise applied with a trowel. And the only thing the boring mixed veggies have going for them is nutrition.

If you require more fuel, check out the luscious peel-and-eat steamed, seasoned shrimp, sold by the pound and half-pound for not much more than you'd pay for uncooked crustaceans at a retail fish market. Touched up with a squeeze of lemon, Gulf oysters on the half-shell offer additional satisfaction. Shrimp Norfolk, a medley of shrimp, crabmeat and thumbnail-size scallops in a buttery sauce, also has its merits. But I'd go first for the crab cake, a plump, meaty, skillet-fried beauty whose $3.75 ala carte tag won't bust too many budgets.

But steer away from the soups, at least in their current form. While the vegetable crab and clam chowder are both tasty enough, they're still disappointing. That's because only small amounts fit into their vessel, a "bowl" of hollowed-out bread that quickly turns to mush. You'll be lucky to extract half a dozen tablespoons of broth before you scrape bread. I'd be willing to pay more for bigger portions of these soups served in a real bowl, teamed with a fresh, crusty loaf.

The dessert line is baited with only two items: a root beer float and cafeteria-quality peach cobbler. I can't imagine either one luring diners. Our waitress told us the proprietors are considering bringing a pastry chef on board. If they want to hook anyone for dessert and coffee, they'd better.

Don't expect to be dining off bone china, drinking from handblown stemware or wielding silver-plated cutlery here. Steamed Blues has one word for keeping down costs: plastic--plastic plates, plastic cups, plastic cutlery. But if that's what it takes to get an affordable crab dinner in this town, I'm all for it.

Seafood Central, 6990 East Shea, Scottsdale, 922-3474. Hours: Dinner, 5 to 10 p.m., seven days a week.

The operators of Seafood Central, a South Florida minichain branching out into the desert Southwest, seem to have all the right instincts, even if they have set up shop in a location that has buried two restaurants in the last 18 months.

Why will things be different this time? Because Seafood Central is about the only spot I can think of in the tony northeast Valley that offers tasty fish dinners for not much more than the price of a movie ticket. While most restaurants live for the Friday and Saturday, let's-make-a-night-of-it crowd, Seafood Central is the kind of place that will appeal to the too-pooped-to-cook folks, weary nine-to-fivers looking for something cheap, family-friendly and reasonably nutritious during the week.

The sterile, boxy, warehouse setting, brightly lighted and somewhat garishly colored, isn't high on charm. The thumpa-thumpa rock music is annoying, but I suppose it's part of the high-volume plan to turn tables. The walls are stenciled with cutesy messages that are grammatically fishy: "Seafood at it's best"; "Cowboy's do eat fish."

Fortunately, the proprietors know more about seafood than they do about apostrophes. A marker board lists what's fresh each day. Ahi tuna, trout, mahimahi, salmon, snapper and swordfish all show up regularly. Market-priced Maine lobster and three kinds of crab are also available, if you're into spending bigger bucks.

But that makes no financial sense. The fish is quite good, marinated and expertly grilled. Whatever you order will be juicy, flaky, ample, and priced to please. The trout is particularly wonderful--it tastes like it just jumped out of a stream.

Grilled fish isn't the only thing that makes Seafood Central stand out. Most everything here is fashioned with an eye toward quality.

Take the bread. It's way better than it has to be, a fresh, crusty, sesame-studded loaf. Even on a Sunday night, when most weekend restaurant bread has already hardened into stone, the bread here was still in the prime of life.

The two soups are nicely done. Conch chowder doesn't appear on too many Valley menus, and there's generally no reason to lament its absence. That's because this tropical mollusk can be unbelievably chewy. But Seafood Central minces its conch into such tiny pieces that you don't need the jaws of a wolf to work on them. Then the conch is tossed into a peppery broth stocked with veggies. The clam chowder, meanwhile, may not be as buttery as the town's best versions, but no one will complain about a shortage of clams.

Oysters are probably the best value here. I haven't seen a dozen oysters on the half-shell for $1.99 since I retired my Nehru jacket. Conch fritters aren't quite as satisfactory a starter, five deep-fried balls that don't have anything special going for them, including the $4 tag.

Seafood Central knows that not everyone wants a grilled piece of fresh fish. So it provides clam strips, fried shrimp and battered catfish. If battered and fried is your preferred mode of preparation, consider trying it on the grouper, a white-fleshed Caribbean species that does well bubbled in oil.

You can also team shellfish with pasta. Spaghetti with clams, which features a briny, parsley-flecked sauce and lots of minced clams, hits the right buttons. The side dishes are simple, but effective. Most dinners come with boiled red potatoes or surprisingly good seasoned rice, a welcome change of pace from fries. A bit of salad greenery shows up, as well.

Like Steamed Blues, Seafood Central hasn't invested heavily in restaurant equipment. Fresh fish is served on plastic dishware; fried fish arrives in wax-paper-lined baskets. Salads come in a paper tray. You'll have to ask for water, and drink it out of a plastic cup. And you'll wipe your face with paper napkins.

On the other hand, this kind of corner-cutting permits two people to get seafood dinners and change back from a twenty. From that perspective, plastic and paper don't look "cheap." I'd call them "cost-effective."

Steamed Blues:
Steamed shrimp
$4.95
Shrimp Norfolk
9.25
Soft-shell crab
12.95
Steamed blue crabs
(half dozen)
16.00

Seafood Central:
Conch chowder $1.79
Fried grouper
5.99
Grilled trout
7.95
Clam pasta
8.59

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