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Red Claws Crab Shack is reason enough to brave the Parks Mall traffic. Photo by Lee Chastain.

There are plenty of reasons to avoid the Parks Mall neighborhood in South Arlington, but Red Claws Crab Shack isn’t one of them. Indeed, amid an otherwise dystopian menagerie of commercial detritus, Red Claws has a kind of fresh-scrubbed sincerity about it. Warm yellow light spills from its shopping-strip windows onto the shopping-strip parking lot, welcoming in diners from the cold. The tables are rolled with clean waxed paper, and the booths are adorned with just enough Gulf Coast kitsch to let you know what you’re in for. Even the generic EDM playing on the sound system, which on its own would have all the charm of an $80 spoiler for a Honda Civic, contributes to the sense that Red Claws is someone’s home rather than the product of a focus group.

Red Claws Crab Shack
Fried calamari    $8.95
Fried alligator    $11.95
Gulf oysters (1 doz.)    $15.95
Bucket #3 (shrimp and snow crab)    $34.00
     (mkt.)
Sweet potato fries     $4.95

My guests and I had come a long way (and through a lot of traffic) to get to the place on a recent weekday evening, and we were glad to be shown to a tidy booth tucked back from the main floor. We began our meal with a dozen Gulf oysters, served raw over crushed ice, with fresh grated horseradish and a thin hot sauce. Lime wedges, rather than the usual lemons, gave the briny bivalves an exotic kick. The mollusks were perfect and set the tone for an evening when absolute freshness was evident in every bite we ate.

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Of course, freshness can take you only so far. I don’t think for a second that our fried alligator basket wasn’t as fresh as everything else we enjoyed, but even with a near-perfect preparation — a crackly golden breading and a lemony dip — I’m not likely to order it again. Alligator meat is just a little too sweet, too reptilian, and too transgressive for me to appreciate. Whoever said it tastes like chicken had been eating the wrong bird. Happily, my guests savored every nugget.

The fried calamari set me back to rights, with a lighter-than-air cornstarch dusting that gave the squid a popcorn-like pleasantness. Seasoned perfectly before it arrived to the table, all the calamari needed was a squeeze of citrus (lemon this time) to leave me utterly charmed.

Larger dinners are served by the bucket, and Red Claw offers six to choose from, featuring various combinations of crawfish, shrimp, mussels, and crab. Our Bucket #3 came with a pound each of shrimp and snow crab, along with corn, red potatoes, and sausage. The bucket itself turned out to be a gigantic plastic bag crammed with carapaces and chthonian claws, but we hardly had time to ask whether our dinner had been boiled in the bag or what — we were too busy getting outfitted with the requisite equipment: bibs, gloves, claw-crackers, shrimp-shellers, and deveiners. Eating a Red Claws bucket was an immersive experience, making it hard to think of just popping in casually for a light meal (although they offer po’boy sandwiches and etouffees as well.) It was, however, a hell of a lot of fun.

When you order your bucket, you can choose a flavor for your broth. Garlic, lemon pepper, and Cajun seasoning are the three options, but let the staff talk you into ordering the “RC Kick” combo of all three. You can choose your spice level, too, and we found that medium was just right. Inside the bag, the hard work of peeling and cracking was rewarded with generous morsels of sweet crab and tender shrimp cooked just to perfection. Even a red potato, eaten like an apple, had a buttery succulence that permeated to the very core.

At 9:30 sharp, the lights came up and the music went off. Closing time at Red Claws is serious business, but we allowed ourselves to be escorted back into the night with smiles all around. The place may not quite rise to the level of a destination restaurant, but, for anyone in the area, it deserves to be near the top of the list.

Red Claws Crab Shack, 4629 S Cooper St, Ste 111, Arlington. 817-642-5431. 12pm-9:30pm Sun, 11am-9:30pm Mon-Thu, 11am-10:30pm Fri, 12pm-10:30pm Sat. All major credit cards accepted.

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