Soft shell crab season is here. The typically fried, but sometimes seared, dish comes in a wide range of forms, from simpler sandwiches to cheffed-up versions at the city’s finer dining joints.
As usual, the dish is a hot item at the restaurants, often selling out nightly. Further, the dish is decidedly seasonal, only available for a short time each year. That means you have to act quickly to get this dish.
We’re currently in the midst of the spring soft shell season, which will likely last another four weeks or so, said Paul Filo, who handles supply chain and marketing for Lowcountry Shellfish. Lowcountry supplies several restaurants in Columbia, including spots like The War Mouth in Cottontown and Mr. Friendly’s New Southern Cafe in Five Points.
He explained that availability is impacted by temperature shifts. The availability of the crustaceans starts further South, in Florida, and trends up the coast as waters warm. The opposite effect — cooling — creates a secondary season in the fall, Filo elaborated.
“Water temperature, when it reaches probably 62 degrees it creates a change in the crab, and in season they’ll start to molt,” he explained of the crab’s availability. “A crab will technically shed year round but it’s not prolific enough to harvest them.”
West Columbia fine dining spot Terra — which is offering soft shells dredged in a cornmeal mix and pan-fried in clarified butter, alongside a celery root puree and a ragu of spring peas, fava beans and grilled onion, plus a cherry mustard butter — anticipates that "prime time season" will last about two and a half weeks, explained executive chef Mike Davis.
This year, with restaurants fully reopened, following a spring season in 2020 that was hampered by the initial height of the COVID-19 pandemic, demand has been big.
“It’s a signature item that is here and runs along the coast,” he shared. “(Demand) is very strong.”
Free Times has collected a handful of Columbia restaurants offering soft shell crabs, though, as mentioned, availability is sporadic. So do call ahead to ensure they're still in stock.
We’ll continue to update this list as we find out about more.
201 Meeting St., West Columbia. 803-724-2853. blackroostersc.com.
At Kristian Niemi’s West Columbia upscale, “French-ish” Black Rooster, chef Alex Strickland is whipping up the soft shells in pan-fried fashion. They were initially served alongside asparagus, fava beans, bacon bardons, pickled tomato jam, tarragon creme fraiche, and crispy kalette, though Strickland has already diversified his approach, using squid-ink-fried soft shells in this week's rotating Tuesday ramen special.
1214 Main St. 803-403-1404. bourboncolumbia.com
Niemi’s other spot on Main Street is offering them, too. In Bourbon’s case, it’s being done in a nuac cham, the Vietnamese sauce. It’s breaded, fried and served with bibb lettuce, pickled vegetables, and nuac cham for dipping.
Motor Supply Co. Bistro
920 Gervais St. 803-256-6687. motorsupplycobistro.com.
The Vista’s longtime fine dining eatery is offering the soft crabs in a decidedly upscale fashion, if last week’s Instagram post is an indicator. They’re available for in-house dining only, so keep that in mind if you’re not yet comfortable going out.
Spotted Salamander Cafe and Catering
1531 Richland St. 803-556-2197. spottedsalamandercatering.com
Chef-owner Jessica Shillato said in response to an Instagram comment that they sold out of two cases of the softies in one hour. That’s a lot of crab in a not-so-big amount of time. She’ll hopefully have them back next week, pending availability issues. Shillato was serving them two ways, Nashville hot fashion or po boy style.
The War Mouth
1209 Franklin St. 803-569-6144. thewarmouth.com.
The Cottontown restaurant’s chef Rhett Eliott told me he's featuring soft shell crabs in a minimalistic fashion this year, not putting any breading on the. Instead, he is pan-searing them and, most recently, serving them over marinated cabbage and a wild carrot clabber cream. The idea is to let the crab’s inherent flavors shine through, he said.
Mr. Friendly’s New Southern Cafe
2001 Greene St. 803-254-7828. mrfriendlys.com.
In Five Points, Mr. Friendly’s has become known for slinging soft shell crab in high numbers. Owner Ricky Mollohan claimed in a text message that it holds the record for most bought in a season from Lowcountry Shellfish. This year, the restaurant is offering it in several places on the menu, as a starter dish and as a buttermilk-fried entree.
100 State St. 803-791-3443. terrasc.com.
Mentioned at the top of this article, Mike Davis is shallow-pan-frying soft shell crab this year in clarified butter. They come with a celery root puree and a ragu of spring peas, fava beans and grilled onion, plus a cherry mustard butter.