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Alaskan king crab is all it's cracked up to be

Red Star Seafood Restaurant

8298 Granville St., Vancouver


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$110 for Alaskan king crab dinner for two with tax and tip (based on a table of 10)

Cuisine: Cantonese

March is the lousiest month in Vancouver. The rain's been falling for far too long. The cherry blossoms seem an eternity away. Everyone starts wishing that they lived in Maui, or even Montreal – anywhere with blue skies on the horizon.

But then the ads start popping up in Chinese newspapers. Alaskan king crab season has arrived. And the memory of lusciously fat, sweetly steamed legs slathered in garlic reminds you how lucky we are to live here and why you wouldn't want to be anywhere else in the world right now.

Yes, it's that time of year!

Vancouver's Alaskan king crab "season" doesn't actually coincide with the opening of the commercial-fishing season. The Deadliest Catch, as the world's most dangerous fishery has been popularized through reality television, closed on Jan. 15. Our season is that short period in early spring when local distributors receive whatever remains of the live Alaskan catch that hasn't already been shipped off to Asia (about 80 per cent of the total harvest) and offers it at substantially reduced rates.

This year, retail prices range from $11.98 a pound at T&T Supermarket to $19 a pound at fine-dining Cantonese restaurants. That's a few dollars higher than usual because commercial catches were enormously slashed this season (down 47 per cent from 2010/2011).

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But even $19 is a steal when compared to the off-season, when live king crab averages $40 to $50 a pound – and is typically imported from Russia, an unsustainable market, which ocean-conservation programs warn consumers to avoid. What's more, there are very few cities outside Japan and China where you'll ever find this abundance of live king crab.

Why are we the fortunate recipients of such rare bounty? You can thank the owners of Sun Sui Wah. Back in the mid-1980s, when the legendary Cantonese, banquet-style restaurant opened on Main Street, it was the first to seek out the live, writhing, spiny-knobbed beasts for its newly arrived Hong Kong customers who had become accustomed to the plush texture and sweet flavour of the shellfish's fresh flesh (which turns bland and stringy when frozen).

Connections were made, a steady supply was established, competition heated up and now there are no decent Cantonese restaurants in Vancouver, Burnaby and Richmond that don't offer fresh Alaskan king when available.

Sun Sui Wah may be the local king crab granddad, but its dining room service leaves much to be desired. (I once waited a full hour past a reservation time to be seated). And though I've enjoyed several king crab dinners at Kirin, I'm not a big fan of the fried garlic on their steamed legs. So this year I decided to try Red Star Seafood Restaurant in Marpole and wasn't disappointed. The food and service were stellar.

Red Star's crab price, $18.80 a pound, is steep, but in line with Sea Harbour, Fisherman's Terrace and other high-end Chinese restaurants around town. Beware of deals that seem too good to be true – as low as $10.99 a pound at some restaurants this year. They usually come with a catch (cooking not included) or two (the low price only applies to smaller crab).

And size does matter. Small crab have a lower flesh-to-shell ratio.

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Don't bother ordering less than eight pounds; 10 pounds is optimal.

Ours was a nine-pound monster with thick, dense legs. (After lolling around in tanks for a few weeks, the meat starts to shrink.) The restaurant should always present your crab to the table before cooking. Don't forget your camera, and don't be shy about picking it up – the leg span measures up to a metre! You could ask to see your crab weighed, but the manager will be deeply offended.

At Red Star, $18.80 includes having your crab cooked two ways. First, the legs are slit for easy picking, slathered in raw minced garlic and steamed. The huge, Churchill cigar-sized tubes are so moist and creamy, you'll swear they've been doused in butter, but that's just their own natural juiciness. Next up are the joints, deep-fried in pepper salt with slivered garlic and hot peppers. Red Star does an excellent job of butchering so there's lots of meat to chew on. This preparation is very salty, so if you're averse to salt you may want to ask for a different batter.

Save the leftover garlic and peppers. They add great flavour and texture to yee mein noodles, which can be tossed in the remaining steamed-leg juices for $10. For an additional $16.80, you can ask for the carapace meat to be cooked into Portuguese-style curry fried rice.

Red Star's version is exceptionally fluffy, creamy and packed with extra shrimps and scallops.

We ordered nine pounds for nine people and there weren't any leftovers. If you're not ordering extra dishes – we also ate suckling pig, Peking duck, ginger gai lan and bamboo pinth (an expensive foamy white mesh and acquired taste) – you'd be better off with two pounds per person.

But no matter how you order your Alaskan king crab, you really can't go wrong. What are you waiting for? They'll only be around for a couple more weeks. Get cracking.

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