Dungeness & Flagons

Joe's Crab Shack, 1604 East Southern, Tempe, 730-0303. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.

Someone once said that the special genius of the capitalist system is that no one invented it.

What does that mean? It means that no individual, economic group or political party can claim authority to control the economy. Defenders of capitalism like to point out that society is most likely to flourish when impersonal market forces--what Adam Smith called the "Invisible Hand"--operate unfettered, without restraint or heavy-handed government direction. And they're right. If history teaches us anything, it's that the freedom to pursue our own economic self-interest is the key element in the production of national wealth.

In contrast, central planners in socialist systems believed government experts knew best. But trying to anticipate every contingency in every field--decreeing how many acres of wheat a farmer should plant, or how many cars an automaker should produce--has led to economic disaster just about everywhere.

On the other hand--and maybe this is the "Invisible Hand" that Adam Smith kept behind his back--capitalist efficiency can produce some undesirable side effects. And sometimes, those disadvantages outweigh the economic benefits.

Today's case study: Joe's Crab Shack. It's part of the Landry's Seafood Restaurant, Inc. group, which has nine Joe's Crab Shack outlets spread out across the Sunbelt.

Think about it. We live in a sea of saguaro, hundreds of miles from the nearest ocean. Yet Joe's Crab Shack brings to town five different varieties of crab, from the Pacific Ocean to the Caribbean, from Chesapeake Bay to the Gulf of Mexico.

But it's not only the crabs' availability that's astonishing. Economies of scale give the company tremendous buying power. The result: Most Valley diners can afford what might otherwise seem an incredible luxury--crab in the desert. We can eat Dungeness crabs for about what we'd pay in San Francisco; we can eat stone crabs for about what we'd pay in Miami; and we can eat blue crabs for about what we'd pay in New Orleans. And Joe's Crab Shack can still make a healthy profit.

So everybody's happy, right? Well, not quite. I'm grumpy, even though I loved the crabs at Joe's Crab Shack. The problem is, I don't want to eat them here.

That's because once the proprietors decided to pursue the big money and go national, Joe's Crab Shack had to target the masses. And as anyone who regularly watches television knows, our country's Lowest Common Denominators are not a terribly demanding group.

Take the restaurant's unfocused setting. The place looks like company executives had a brainstorming session about how to carry out the decor, and then decided to use every single idea. Naturally, there's enough nautical equipment--ropes, oars, life jackets--to outfit a Jacques Cousteau expedition. For some inexplicable reason, servers wear '60s-style tie-dyed shirts, emblazoned with the "peace" symbol and the message "Peace, Love and Crabs." You can gaze on an unthemed mix of hanging parrots, cases of beer, sports equipment and a nearly lifesize cowboy riding a saddled shark.

Company executives have evidently determined that the masses require ear-splitting diversion when they eat. So televisions are blaring everywhere. Annoying thumpa-thumpa music is piped in at high-decibel levels, including the idiotic "Funky Chicken." Watching my fellow diners dancing like deranged poultry at their table while I'm eating is not my idea of a dream restaurant evening. And if it's somebody's birthday, you can count on the staff to gather around the poor soul and inflict vocal "Happy Birthday" punishment. In short, this is what it's probably like eating in bedlam.

Company executives must also figure that the masses will be so happy to find good-tasting, reasonably priced crabs that they'll overlook massive kitchen/service inefficiency. How else, then, to explain why on one visit our appetizers, soup and main dishes all arrived simultaneously within five minutes of ordering, while on another occasion, our entrees took close to an hour to show up?

Finally, company executives probably believe that the high-quality crabs will make customers forgive the rest of the low-quality fare. I'm not that charitable.

The appetizers are prepared with all the banality that corporate kitchens are known for. Crab balls, overpriced seafood gumbo, fried crab fingers and stuffed mushrooms don't make much of an impression. But you'll probably need to order something--Joe's Crab Shack doesn't bother with bread. If you're determined to hold out until the crabs arrive, you'll subsist on crackers and water.

But the crabs are worth being hungry for. Stone crabs, served chilled over ice, are always an expensive delicacy. But Joe's Crab Shack charged only $8.99 for a half pound, just a couple of bucks more than the retail price. Succulent Alaskan king crab legs are sublime, especially if you take the server's suggestion, as we did, and have them bathed in garlic sauce. Steamed blues, fried or grilled soft-shell crabs and meaty Dungeness crab should also fulfill your crab longings.

But your other gastronomic longings are much less likely to be satisfied. I couldn't tell one fried thing from another on my seafood platter. There's nothing remarkable about the coconut shrimp, which sported right-out-of-the-freezer-bag flair. Not even the crab cakes measured up; these thin, flaccid patties obviously hadn't just jumped from a sizzling skillet.

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