By Jeff Kronenfeld, September 2020 Issue.
Any one of the three combos from Mr. Claws — the East Valley’s newest purveyor of affordable seafood — is a feast in a bag. Case in point, our order of combo three, which came with at least a pound each of king crab legs, mussels on the shell, shrimp and crawfish. In addition, the steamy sack also contained red potatoes, a corn quarter, pieces of sausage and about a half-gallon of buttery seafood sauce to dip it all in. While this ocean of mostly invertebrate meat proved more than my dining companion and I could finish, I like a place that fills my gut instead of draining my wallet.
The homestyle approach of Mr. Claws harkens back to the beginnings of co-owner Peter Nguyen’s taste for the ocean’s bounty. Growing up in Orange County, California, Nguyen and his family would often grill fresh seafood, something he still looks back on fondly. His favorite was slurping warm mussels from the shell in the ocean’s temperate breeze. While the air is a few degrees warmer than that in Mesa at the moment, at least you can taste the saltwater without braving travel in the age of COVID-19.
Together with his wife and co-owner Trinh Vong, Nguyen opened the doors at Mr. Claws on July 3. Neither comes from a professional culinary background, but that doesn’t mean they’re lost at sea in the kitchen. The couple has been preparing meals for family gatherings and other large functions for almost a decade. When serving up generous portions of his favorite mollusks at communal meals, Nguyen recalled hearing the same question over and over.
“Everybody just kept asking us to open a restaurant,” Nguyen said. “We were always like yeah, yeah, but it never really came to mind until the last two and a half years or so.”
The family the pair fed all these years eventually put their money where their mouths were, helping Nguyen and his wife secure Mr. Claws’ current location. East of South Alma School Road and a few blocks north of the U.S. 60, the interior is surprisingly spacious. A few vestiges of From the Roots Up Vegetarian Soul Food, the spot’s former occupant, still haunt the space. However, the aroma of boiling crustaceans quickly reminded me that there was a new cook in town.
Like I said earlier, I ordered the third combo option, which was more than enough for two if not three or more people. In the future, I will probably stick to ordering individual dishes, but if you’re feeding a group, the combos are a safe and easy bet. The number two combo was the same as ours, but with a pound of snow crab instead of the king crab. Combo one includes everything but a crab serving. It’s still plenty of food, but the crab was our favorite part. That is, once we broke through the oversized crustacean’s thick exoskeleton.
The two pairs of arms were large enough to make me glad the burly beasts they were once attached to stick to deep waters. We once again used our metal lemon juicer to crack the armor, which again did the job. One nice aspect about the king crab is that its larger size makes it a little easier to fish out the soft inners with one clean pull. Nguyen actually prefers the snow crab, which is cheaper and sweeter than its royal counterpart.
After successfully overcoming the spikey shell, we learned it was definitely worth the effort. The crab’s natural sweetness stood out even when the white flesh was practically drowned in garlic sauce. As I worked my way from the biggest segments to the littlest, I enjoyed noticing the subtle differences in flavor and texture. Eating crab isn’t for the faint of heart or weak of finger, but its clean flavor and light texture mean even those who turn their noses up at fish might consider a few test nibbles.
Like Nguyen, I too appreciate a good mussel. Maybe it’s because scrapping the fleshy foot with my incisors brings out my inner sea mammal, or maybe it’s the tender chewiness. In either case, the medium heat of the sauce and savory saltiness of the meat mingled pleasantly in my mouth. I used the shell as a spoon, fill it with sauce which I swallowed with the mussel. Make sure to have a separate plate or plates on hand for shells and other less palatable body parts. Also, plenty of napkins or paper towels.
For a modest two-dollar upcharge, you can get the shrimp pre-peeled and pre-decapitated. I always find this particular task a little unappetizing, so I really appreciated this option. The tender but plump white curlicues of flesh held flavors nicely without any traces of unpleasant fishiness. These little protein puffs were my dining companions favorite, definitely a good thing considering how much food a pound of shrimp really is.
Last but not least was the pound of ruby red crawfish, also known as crawdads, mudbugs or mountain lobsters. Whatever you call them, these were particularly large and succulent representatives of the species. For those who haven’t had the pleasure of these little crayfish, they really are like mini lobsters. Like a lobster, the best meat is in the tail. Some like to also suck out the brains, which I am guilty of trying in the past, though this time I refrained.
I ate a few tails but with so much premium crab and shrimp, I just didn’t want to fill precious belly space with this lesser crustacean. I think I might have forgotten how to properly deshell crawdads too. Or maybe it’s always that gruesome and I just repress the memory each time. This is definitely not for the squeamish, but you really can’t take that sort anywhere fun.
The non-seafood items were good too, though I could have used a second corn quarter and maybe a little more sausage. The red potatoes were soft, creamy and infused with sauce. The corn quarter was juicy as a ripe peach. The kernels liquified as I quickly stripped the cobb clear. I actually didn’t notice the two pieces of sausage the first day and I feel they should include more or just omit it.
When visiting in the future, I’ll likely stick to ordering ala carte. That way I can focus on the crab, lobster tail, mussel or shrimp I prefer and avoid the crawdads. For me, they are more of an occasional novelty. Plus, ordering individual items would let me try the masago creamy scallops or grilled garlic butter oysters. The shrimp garlic noodle also looked interesting as a quick and filling lunch. If you’re seeking a quick brain food lunch or a more adventurous culinary outing, Mr. Claws is ready to help in a snap.