Sacramento, CA 95827
It’s not every day that a simple dinner out can lead to a debate on the exact location of a crab’s brains. But as my husband and I nibbled, gnawed, poked and pried at a dish of sampan crab at HoiCin, a moderately upscale Chinese restaurant way out on Folsom Boulevard, we started to wonder.
The dish is composed of a whole crab, shell on, separated into legs and claws and chunks of body—all battered, fried and tossed with a colorful, flavorful mixture of spicy salt, incendiary little dried red chilies, green onions, fresh green chilies and crisp-chewy slices of fried garlic. It’s dramatically presented with the coral-colored carapace, also fried, set jauntily atop the disorderly jumble of crab parts and seasonings. When we turned over the shell, we found an indeterminate mass of stalactites of what a good friend of mine calls simply “fry”—that is, bits of fried batter—descending from oddly colored, clinging bits of crab goo. My husband leapt to the conclusion that said goo was brains. I wasn’t so sure, but I was forced to confess that my grasp of crab anatomy was tenuous at best.
It didn’t really matter, for two reasons. The first was that we didn’t actually want to know. The second was that we were soon so absorbed in the messy but satisfying task of extracting deliciously sweet crabmeat from the hot shell and, in my case at least, nibbling the salty fry off the shells, that all conversation temporarily ceased.
I’m sure that sampan crab is a dish meant for a larger party as part of a multi-course meal, but the two of us made fairly short work of it and managed several other dishes besides. HoiCin, which recently changed its name from Daimo, has an extensive menu that includes dim sum and strikingly authentic ingredients and items like sea-cucumber dishes, beef with bitter melon, and braised pork belly with preserved greens, as well as the more familiar choices you see on the menu at almost every Chinese restaurant.
Although the word “modern” in the subtitle “Fine Modern Asian Cuisine” might give you the idea that HoiCin has a fusion-style spin, it does not. It does, however, offer an appealingly refined atmosphere; I particularly liked the stylishly varied tones of gray on different walls, set against an accent wall of deep burgundy. I also liked the fact that the more adventurous dishes are presented on a single English-language menu rather than confined, as at some places, to a Chinese-only list.
It was impossible to sample more than a tiny smattering of the enormous menu. Both of us were hungry, and to start off my husband ordered a dish of pot stickers, which the menu called grilled but which clearly were pan-fried. The exterior of the wrappers was a bit oily, but inside was an excellent filling, made with chicken rather than the usual pork and further lightened with textural bits of what I took to be ginger, green onion and crunchy cabbage. They were presented on a bed of cool lettuce on an earthy-looking and attractive rectangular ceramic dish, which added visual appeal.
In addition to these and the crab, we also ordered a dish of pea leaves with garlic and pork pan-fried noodles. We were glad we had. I thought it would be far too much food, but even though the crab, which followed the pot stickers, was an elaborate and time-consuming dish, it was more flavorful than filling.
The pea leaves, called pea shoots on many menus, were simple and delicious, if slightly pricey. If you haven’t had them, they’re a wonderful vegetable, tender and deep-green like spinach but with a subtle, sweet flavor of spring, much like sugar snap peas. They’re beautiful, too, with the curling little tendrils that you see on pea vines poking out from amid the leaves. The enormous mound of them at HoiCin arrived just wilted in a light sauce with just enough chopped garlic to enhance rather than overwhelm the leaves. At first, my husband dismissed them as “healthy,” and they are, but I noticed that he ate more and more of them as time went on.
The noodle dish was far less ethereal, but it had merits of its own. The menu promised shredded pork and bean sprouts. The dish actually had sliced, dense, red-rimmed, sweet, barbecued pork with wilted bok choy, which to my taste was even better than what I thought we would get. The dish was topped with wiry, thin, crunchy noodles. A tangle of softer ones below was doused in a savory and salty brown sauce. This simple fare didn’t really go with the crab we’d had earlier, but it was very tasty and made a great lunch the next day.
HoiCin also offers a number of set dinners and banquet menus for variously sized parties, which combine some of the menu’s most intriguing dishes. Most of them offer the sampan crab, which is a specialty of the house. If you have a large party to entertain, you could do a lot worse than to take them to HoiCin for one of the more interesting Chinese dinners around and maybe even a spirited debate on crab anatomy.