Published in the Ventura County Reporter, Winter 2004
By Mark Storer
From the moment it opened, Joe’s Crab Shack was a bone of contention for Ventura. Reports of a sweetheart deal on arguably one of the best plots of land for a business, near Pierpont, caused a stir. When the restaurant finally opened, three-hour waits were not unusual. The former Charthouse, dressed down and funked out with its eclectic mix of toys hanging from the ceiling and a laid back, even fun atmosphere, was apparently the place to see and be seen by both the 20 and 30-somethings as well as young families. My question is: Why?
Aside from its attempt to be a sort of mid-life Chuck E. Cheese, Joe’s has very little to offer. The food is mediocre at best, the prices are certainly not the most value in town and then there’s the insipid dancing. Yes, every hour on the hour, the wait staff gets out on the floor, the lights dim down, a mirror ball begins to twirl and disco music pumps from the speakers. Annoying really. Word on the Internet is that the reason Joe’s does this (it happens at all Joe’s locations and there are a lot of them) is because the kitchen cannot keep up with the wait staff in terms of getting food to the tables quickly. There are simply too many orders to fill. Now, my own anecdotal experience tells me that may actually be true, for though the appetizers came on time, the entrée’s took a bit of a break before arriving at our table. But there was disco.
As far as the appetizers themselves were concerned, my wife and sister-in-law ordered crab balls. Now, I didn’t know crabs had balls (can I say that?), but there they were. “But seriously folks,” they were deep fried fritters with crab and shrimp inside of them and since I have that pesky shellfish allergy, I learned second-hand that they were, well….fine. Deep fried with the shellfish inside and a crunchy texture outside, they were fine.
I was dumb enough to order that bane of arteries everywhere, the deep fried cheese stick. It was, well…..fine. It was cheese, battered and deep fried with marinara sauce. It’s the cliché of appetizers and small variations by various corporate restaurants have not succeeded in creating a brilliant fried cheese stick, though my mother maintains that Arby’s has the best. They’re almost certainly cheaper, anyway.
The one bright spot as far as the food was concerned was the crab, according to my family. My wife Sue had the mixed grill platter of various seafood items that included grilled shrimp, crab, salmon and seafood cakes. Sue said the crab was quite good, meaty and flavorful and there was plenty of it.
I took a bite of the salmon on her plate and the only way to describe it is that it didn’t taste like much of anything. Whether from being in the freezer for too long or perhaps because it wasn’t the best quality, it just didn’t have any flavor. It didn’t even taste fishy, which I suppose is a good thing.
My sister-in-law Laurie ordered the broiled shrimp trio and she said it was, well….fine. Again, shrimp cooked three different ways, one of them breaded; you know the drill since just about every corporate restaurant chain does it this way. One dish was scampi and the other was stuffed with crab and what Joe’s refers to as “seafood”. It wasn’t great, but it wasn’t bad either. It was…shrimp.
I ordered a top sirloin steak and the special surprise here is that rather than getting one good sized steak, you get two small ones! Genius when you think about it because if you’re not that hungry, you can take one home or even tell them you just want one and save a couple of bucks. Brilliant. It came with what was at one time a baked potato but in its augmented stage, could hardly pass for that now. It was covered with 8 pounds of cheese and a smattering of green onions and I think there might have been bacon bits, though I won’t swear to it. It oozed with dairy and grease and it was probably the tastiest thing on the plate. I consoled myself with the mixed vegetables which were actually cooked pretty well, but they were dripping with butter, so—no lack of calories there. That one dish, however, was $15.99.
Just as I was taking notes, it happened again. I was consoling myself with the atmosphere and the nice playground outside. We didn’t bring my daughter, but she would have loved it. It really is a great place for kids. But as I say, I was contemplating the blandness of the meal and contrasting that with my wife’s positive crab experience and the lights went down again. OK, it’s not quite Chuck E. Cheese for adults because Chuck E. Cheese actually has pretty good pizza and for all the noise, music, kids screaming and yelling and lights flashing, there’s still no disco-which I count as a good thing. No, I don’t know how to describe it. What’s worse is I cannot figure out whose idea it was to have the wait staff dance, in unison mind you, doing the same steps, to disco. Can you imagine the interview for this job? “Listen, it’s a fast paced food environment. Customers need to be kept happy, they expect to be catered to and so we need you to learn the routine of getting orders into the kitchen and out to the table fast, OK?”
“Sure, sounds great-I can do that. Better tips.”
“Oh, yeah-one more thing. Can you boogie?”
I must say, however, our server was happy and friendly, she kept the beer coming and the sodas refilled and man, she could really move! How charming.
Dessert was highly anticipated as on the little poster-thingy at the table, Joe’s advertises a Bananas Foster. Now, I am a fan of this dish. Done correctly, it’s sliced banana halves sautéed in cooked caramel and sugar, usually with an addition of Brandy or some other liquor to boost the complexity of the cooked caramel and on request, served with either fresh whipped or ice cream. We ordered naively thinking it would be at least some variation of this.
The first sign of trouble was when the dish came to the table less than 3 minutes after we ordered. Bananas Foster takes time, but not at Joe’s. The plate was filled with, of all things, ice cream. It was good ice cream, vanilla bean-I’m guessing Dreyer’s but don’t hold me to that, and it was also smothered in whipped cream. All of this was inside a crepe (why a crepe? I asked myself) and drizzled with what was obviously caramel from a bottle that probably gets used a lot. The last time this caramel saw anything like a sauté pan was when it was in the mixing vats Mega-Caramel Factory somewhere in the Midwest. Oh, there were slices of banana as well. Now the thing about B.F. is that it’s supposed to be warm and then when you do add ice cream, which is optional, you get the warm cold contrast which is simple, but good. Not here. All was cold. I mean, look-it wasn’t bad, how could it be? But it wasn’t Bananas Foster and somewhere in Louisiana right now is some guy named Foster cursing the fact that he didn’t copyright his recipe.
And so, the lengthy waits continue unfettered. We went on a Wednesday early and by the time we left there was a line of people both in and out of the restaurant waiting to get in. If you have kids, they will be endlessly entertained with the music and the dancing and the toys and the fun atmosphere. Birthday parties, I hear, are a real hoot including costumes for the celebrant and everything. But as a “foodie” who appreciates the balance between atmosphere and good grub, I have to say that Joe’s isn’t a balance. Go, therefore, and eat the crab, if unlike me it holds not enmity with your blood. But be prepared to dance, laugh, giggle, drink beer and talk to your friends and family—because if you’re going for the food, you shouldn’t.