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.
The side dishes were just as disappointing. The fries weren't hot or crispy; rice pilaf was unbelievably salty; and there was no escaping the inevitable ear of corn, harvested six months ago and cooked to a mushy, tasteless pulp.
Desserts come from Landry's and are designed to give the masses a sugar high. There's nothing subtle about either the chocolate overdose cake or peanut butter pie, both of which take dead aim on your sweet tooth.
By giving seafood-starved desert dwellers what they want--a variety of crabs at a fair price--Joe's Crab Shack figures to make lots of dollars. Still, until the noise is toned down, service improved and attention paid to all the culinary details, Joe's Crab Shack doesn't make sense.
Casey Moore's Oyster House, 850 South Ash, Tempe, 968-9935. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, 11 a.m. to 1 a.m., seven days a week.
Set in a lovely old house just a few minutes' walk from the bustling Mill Avenue strip, Casey Moore's is a rare oasis of dining serenity in Tempe.
That's because most of the student patrons congregate downstairs, smoking, drinking and flirting in the energized bar area and patio. Meanwhile, their sensible parents are dining upstairs in one of two cozy rooms, eating on linen-draped tables, where the first-floor fumes and tumult can't reach them.
The place lures them with more than quiet and clean air. There's good quality adult fare here. Naturally, the menu offers the inevitable chicken finger and mozzarella stick appetizers, and fried shrimp and chicken teriyaki entree snoozers. After all, students don't know better. But if you order right, Casey Moore's delivers one of this university town's more pleasant dining experiences.
The trick is to stick with the ocean fare. In particular, keep your eyes focused on the two or three daily aquatic specials.
Nibbling on oysters will get you primed. The ones on the half-shell are briny fresh, while the memory of the oysters Rockefeller, smothered with spinach, bacon and a creamy cheese sauce, makes me salivate as I write this. If oysters make you queasy--"He was a bold man that first eat an oyster," wrote Jonathan Swift--reel in the Cajun shrimp, firm butterflied crustaceans doused in a chile-spiked sauce. It's spicy, but nothing we Arizonans can't handle.
If your budget can't handle starters, don't despair. Meals come with soup or salad, and the kitchen isn't merely going through the motions with either one. The soups are especially hearty: The beef tortilla model is almost thick enough to be a beef stew; the French onion soup is not too salty and topped with real Gruyere cheese; and the clam chowder is rich and creamy. A loaf of six-grain dark bread also helps tamp down hunger pangs.
The seafood specials exhibit a certain creativity. Take the excellent sea scallops, nine big, juicy mollusks tossed with lots of artichokes, mushrooms and spinach in a sun-dried tomato pesto sauce. They're served over penne pasta topped with crumbled feta cheese. It's a substantial dish, as tasty as it is filling.
On another evening, expertly grilled salmon was teamed with cilantro linguini and vividly colored steamed broccoli and carrot. A pair of purees, gingered papaya mango and roasted poblano, demonstrated a deft touch.
Grilled ahi tuna adorned with a white-wine goat-cheese sauce didn't come off quite as well as I'd expected. The flavors aren't really complementary, and the tuna got somewhat overwhelmed. But I have nothing but compliments for the side dish, irresistibly thick and flavorful chile-mashed potatoes.
Orange ginger shrimp skated dangerously close to the culinary edge. Seven meaty shrimp came partnered with pasta, and gilded with artichokes, spinach and apple. The apple, however, wasn't nearly as odd as the moistening agent, a tangy-sweet, heavily gingered citrus sauce that threatened to bury every other flavor. Sometimes with seasoning, as with architecture, less is more.
Desserts, we were told, come from Upper Crust, a reliable Valley supplier whose cakes and pies can be counted on to bring meals to a happy, if not ecstatic conclusion.
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At Casey Moore's, you can count on three things: The staff won't sing you "Happy Birthday"; the other diners won't perform the "Funky Chicken"; and the kitchen won't follow the path of least culinary resistance. You won't hear any complaints from me.
Joe's Crab Shack:
King crab legs
Casey Moore's Oyster House:
Orange ginger shrimp
Sea scallops and pasta
Grilled ahi tuna