It’s not a fine dining seafood establishment, but it’s not solely gimmicky. Yes, you don a plastic bib and eat with gloved hands, but the flavors come from the brain of a Michelin-starred chef. What occasion would bring one to Crackin’ Kitchen? I’m not fully sure. That said, I visited purely out of curiosity and had a great time, so I suppose no reason is as good as any.
If anyone out there has also been binging “Ugly Delicious” on Netflix, you may be as intrigued as myself by the marriage of Asian-influenced Hawaiian cuisine and Cajun food a la episode four. Alas, this was not fusion — this was coexistence. Tropical island fruits dominated drinks and desserts, poke made an appearance as a refreshing sampler. Creole spices and andouille sausage held their post in bagged-and-sauced seafood medleys, but kept their distance from more subtle Polynesian dishes. But while mingling was minimal, synchronicity was omnipresent. No menu component was out of place, per se, except maybe the chowder fries. Yeah, they’re decadently and awesome, but why? Hopefully, you came here for crab, mussels, clams, shrimp and all the other delicious creepy crawlers of the ocean. That or you were walking down Colorado and got curious about the barely month-old restaurant. This real estate is prime — right in the heart of Old Town.
Although I just knocked the fries, it’s true that my favorite type of night out is one filled exclusively with cocktails and finger food, and I’ll be damned if Crackin’ Kitchen doesn’t deliver on that front. A massive, $45 seafood platter is dosed out to serve two people but could easily feed more. If sampling multiple items and fresh seafood is your jam, this might be a good investment. Standards like oysters on the half shell, shrimp cocktail and snow crab pile up on the platter, but distinctly Hawaiian bites find space as well. The ahi poke possessed a flavor reminiscent of seaweed salad, and the lomi lomi salmon brought salsa fresco to mind. Everything was yummy, no doubt about it, but let’s get the appetizer highlight reel, shall we? Honestly, skip the seafood platter as a whole unless you really want that crab. The best part of the plate is the oysters, so just order six of those and pass on the pretty-good-at-best poke, etc. The rest of the menu has things more worthy of stomach space. If oysters aren’t your thing, or if you’re a little more nibbly after a few tropical cocktails (personal favorites include the not-too-sweet lilikoi mojito and spicy pele), an order of guava soy chicken wings should do the trick. These were some of the meatiest, most flavorful, crispiest, most unique wings I have had the pleasure of encountering. A sprinkling of crunchy macadamia nuts added to the tender, meaty goodness as I sucked the bones clean.
Though our table of four was daunted by the mass of appetizers still before us, we were ready for round two: mussel pots. The addition of a huge selection of variably prepared mussels is what makes Crackin’ Kitchen’s California location different from its Hawaiian counterpart. Presumably, this newest menu amendment would have the most kinks left to work out; on the contrary, this is where Chef Takeshi Omae’s Michelin star truly shines. The two varieties we sampled came from opposite ends of the spectrum – rich and savory Portobello versus light and fragrant Thai — and both were impeccably well balanced. The Thai mussel pot was a less intense, more coconut-milk-forward tom kha soup with just the right amount of spice. Ginger, lemongrass and kaffir lime leaf dominated a broth so delectable we found ourselves requesting spoons to slurp up the dregs left in the pot with our discarded shells. Moving on to the Portobello mussel pot was like slipping into a velvety seafood dream. Deeply umami flavors layered one on top of the other in a mushroom-heavy, parmesan-dusted, creamy beef stock. Crunchy slivers of celery brightened up the mix in a welcome way. All too often, celery is just a garnish or a sad side to use as a vehicle for fatty sauce, but this was an intelligent addition. Chef Omae’s mastery of flavor balance and shellfish in general is apparent in these pots. I was left wishing only for an infinite appetite to try them all. Perhaps I’ll be back for lunch when the mussel menu is expanded still more.
As good as the mussels were, the main draw for Crackin’ Kitchen will likely be the by-the-pound orders of seafood, veggies, and/or sausage slathered in any of three signature sauces. This is where things get messy. Waiters came to style us in our protective garb then dumped a medley of goodies all over the tabletop. The ultimate combo includes clams, potatoes, corn, snow crab, andouille sausage, enormous shrimp that stare back at you and still more mussels, but one can adjust the ratios to one’s liking, add lobster, opt solely for one single ingredient, so on and so forth. This portion of the menu is very customizable, which brings me to the sauces. Three exist here at Crackin’ Kitchen: red, black and white. If your main goal is to eat seafood and butter, go for the white sauce. There’s nothing technically wrong with the sweet, lemony, mild Hawaiian dressing, I suppose, just like there’s nothing outwardly wrong with being boring and unadventurous. But live a little! For those who crave something individual, something rich, the black sauce is a peppery and excellently spiced mole. The intense flavors meld surprisingly well with the delicate seafood, making for a fulfilling dish (or tablecloth, in this case). Still, the red sauce was a favorite at our table. It’s hard to go wrong with Cajun-style sauce spiced with Sriracha and Thai chili to the diner’s level of comfort.
In case I have failed to make this abundantly clear, my main warning to future patrons of Crackin’ Kitchen is that the portions are hefty (and one will notice this reflected in the prices). Here’s the thing: shellfish isn’t really the type of food that makes great leftovers. Come with a big group; no finicky eaters allowed. This is, if nothing else, a bonding experience; strong cocktails and unavoidably messy food make sure of this. If your hands are covered in mole, you can’t be using your phone. It’s a win all around … until the Insta-worthy dessert comes out.