Laying it all on the table

Southern-style seafood boil in downtown Chico

Big Hot Crab
701 Main St.

Big Hot Crab

701 Main St.
Chico, CA 95928

(530) 879-1822

Big Hot Crab. If nothing else, the name of one of Chico’s newest eateries is eye-catching. Not sure if it sounds appetizing, but the name fits and the place is actually awesome.

Upon walking into Big Hot Crab—which shares a parking lot with Thunderbird Lodge and oc- cupies the space that was previously home to a Mexican restaurant and The Golden Waffle, among other greasy-spoon diners—the smell of seasoned shellfish filled the air. My boyfriend and I were instantly greeted and shown the way to where several of our friends were seated at a large table covered with thick white paper. There were lots of napkins, but the only utensils present were red sea-shellers and forks.

“This is different,” I said while taking a seat. Everyone agreed. Only one in our party had been there before. He offered a big grin and said, “You’re in for a treat!” He’d taken the liberty of ordering for the table, which was nice because everything on the menu looked delicious. King crab? Yes, please. Lobster tail? If I must … (Crab, lobster and crawfish are all market price, while shrimp, clams and mussels run from $10 to $11.99/lb.)

I didn’t realize just how unique Big Hot Crab was (for Chico at least) until our food arrived, in buckets. I wasn’t the only one taken aback, either—looking around the table, all I saw were wide eyes and smiles of disbelief. Our server pulled large bags out of the bucket and started handing them to us. Our surprise turned to confusion. We had no plates—what were we supposed to do with bags full of seafood?

“Just pour it on the table,” the waitress told us. Really? “Yes,” she assured us. So, we did.

Laid out in front of us was a feast fit for kings. Huge crab legs, plump shrimp—heads and all—clams, mussels and lobster tails. There were also sausages, corn on the cob and potatoes mixed in. And in the style of a traditional Southern seafood boil, all of it had been boiled in a pot and seasoned with the mild house sauce. (Sauce is offered mild or spicy, and there’s a garlic butter option as well.)

Bibs on, sea-shellers in hand, we began to dig in. I started with a lobster tail. Delicious. It was perfectly cooked—tender, no rubbery edges—but the sauce completed the meal. The Cajun flavors were strong without being overpowering, and there was just a hint of heat (the perfect amount, in my opinion).

We all stopped talking for at least 15 minutes while we cracked shells—it took some trial and error to figure out the sea-shellers—and stuffed our faces, only breaking the silence to ask someone at the other end of the table to pass a crab leg or to say “Mmm. This is good!” My personal favorites of the evening had to be the king crab legs, even if they were the most difficult to pry open. The lobster and shrimp were also delicious. (I’m not a huge fan of mollusks, but everyone else seemed to enjoy the mussels and clams.)

The menu also features a variety of fried options, from shrimp, cod and oysters to onion rings and french fries. From the look of them at nearby tables, portion sizes are generous.

As the evening wound down, we took turns at the hand-washing station at the back of the restaurant—a very convenient feature, as we were on the opposite side of the dining area from the restrooms and our hands were positively covered in sauce.

My only complaint with the restaurant is that the Southern seafood experience is diminished somewhat by the fact that the place still looks and feels like the breakfast diner it had been for so many years.

But, as a seafood lover, I will most definitely be returning to Big Hot Crab. Everything was super fresh and flavorful, and the novelty of it all makes it the perfect place for a group dinner or a date night.