Owning a car in NYC is kind of decadent, but it also allows you to cram more non-decadence into shorter time frames. I don’t think I could stomach a Carroll Gardens-Howard Bay-City Island Saturday excursion on public transportation even though you see bus stops even when you feel like you’re in remote corners of the city. That’s just me, though, maybe I’m lacking an adventurous spirit.
Or maybe this is a simple case of taking the easy way out. Whenever I hear that phrase I think about tagging along during car-shopping missions along Northern Boulevard the summer of 2001. James wanted a standard transmission, which was proving tougher than finding Thai chiles in Carroll Gardens. A salesclerk confided in him, “We only sell automatics because Mexicans like taking the easy way out.”
What an odd sentiment, not the misguided racism, but the geographic confusion. This is New York, hardly a Mexican stronghold. Wouldn’t Puerto Ricans or Dominicans make more sense in that context? (In 2000 in NYC there were 799,588 Puerto Ricans, 532,647 Dominicans and a measly 183,792 Mexicans, though that last figure increased a dramatic 57.7% between 2000 and 2007. Watch out, car salesmen.) For what it’s worth, I only know how to drive an automatic.
First, I paid a visit to Captain Luna’s, a glorified bar overlooking Cross Bay that occupies a parking lot next to an FDNY station. It’s also a marina where you can rent boats, buy bait and tackle and charter fishing trips. No sea-lover, I was merely concerned with food and beer.
Coronas and Old Bay shrimp for me. I wasn’t expecting the butter (I’m not sure that’s actually what this was, which says more about me if I can’t tell the difference between margarine and real dairy) just shrimp in the style of Maryland crabs. I greatly prefer peel-and-eating to cracking-and-picking. The concept of crab is more fun than the actual practice.
Legs were the only part of the crab on the menu this particular Memorial Day weekend Saturday and plenty of patrons were gnawing on the red appendages. But blue crabs should become part of the regular rotation soon and I got an an email list to alert me when a fresh haul arrives.
The bar itself sits underneath a tent with additional umbrella topped tables on the adjoining pier. On a balmy Saturday afternoon visit there was a smattering of all sorts occupying the seats: a Hispanic family with kids, a Sheryl Crow-ish tanned woman wearing a cowboy hat who seemed more Austin than Queens who was accompanied by two non-descript men in t-shirts, bikers, most definitely not of the fixed gear variety (a POW/MIA flag is prominently displayed near a beer tap—not sure why I associate that with bikers) and a few twentysomethings, who couldn’t have traveled far to get there, like the two above who began kissing the second after I snapped my photo.
I would’ve soaked up the un-New York-ness of the place over a few more beers if the Bronx hadn’t also been on my agenda. I didn’t do much exploring around City Island, that’ll have to wait for another time.
Instead, I popped into Crab Shanty. The first thing I noticed was that their signage employs the font Burnstown Dam, the same silly lettering I used for my old online diary, Project Me. Viva the '90s. The restaurant isn’t really beachy; even with the blue colored skylights (that cast a really odd glow on my photos) shingled awnings and weather vanes attempting to create an outdoors indoors illusion, you feel landlocked. Plus, the aisles are tighter than a coach cabin. The crab stained glass was kind of cute, though.
The meal starts with garlic bread and a handsome relish tray of both crunchy raw and spicy pickled vegetables. There is a clear Italian-seafood connection in the region. All of the crab places I’ve been to in the city and New Jersey also serve pasta, red sauce and the like.
Their raison d’etre is fried seafood, not my favorite genre, but I dived in with gusto. This mammoth plate housed fish, a soft-shell crab, random shrimp and a shitload of squid. I totally gave myself a stomachache after eating about half and cursed the idiocy of choosing fries as my side (other options included baked potato and linguine). Dinners also come with soup or salad and there was no resisting the iceberg with blue cheese dressing.
Smarter diners opt for crab legs. People are crazy for crab legs. Go to a Chinese buffet and watch the mayhem unfurl when a fresh batch is brought out in metal trays. Crab legs are more meat for less effort, the epitome of taking the easy way out. Instead, James wanted whole crabs, which garnered a warning from our waitress, “That’s a lot of work!”
The thing is, he’s used to Mid-Atlantic crabs, which are big and priced accordingly. Spendy with payoff. Most of what you find in NYC are piddly, exhausting to extract any goodness from but rarely set you back more than $29 for a pile. There's no harm done if you just like cracking crabs, though you might come away from dinner still hungry.
Captain Luna’s Seafood Bar * 158-35 Cross Bay Blvd., Howard Beach, NY
Crab Shanty * 361 City Island Ave., Bronx, NY