Shellfish heaven

The best Chinese food I ever encountered was at a hole-in-the-wall in San Francisco, which was filled, as it seemed, with fire. Intense heat emanated from bold flames, leaping off the sides of steel woks. The flames were like angry strongmen, ready to engulf the cooks who were but weak guardians of their mighty powers. Though not much to look at, the restaurant clearly was the sort of place that would drive a blind person crazy with desire or make a fallen patriarch forget his woes. The sizzle of liquid hitting blazing-hot metal, the warmth filling the room, the pungent smells of ginger and garlic intoxicating the nose and the mind—there are few places that engage all the senses so fully.

It has been difficult to find another Chinese restaurant so satisfying, but Jumbo Seafood on Freeport Boulevard is an impressive establishment with that same rare, raw energy.

Several things cause me to recommend Jumbo Seafood immediately: its straightforward name about big seafood, its commitment to serving food seven days a week in a town that largely takes Sundays off, and the hours (it’s open until midnight every night, and many other restaurants close at 9 p.m.). Surely this is some version of heaven, no?

For many, yes. Jumbo is a crowded heaven, filled with round tables and Lazy Susans. It is a loud, proud heaven where diners delight in eating creatures that must be pried from their shells. It is a heaven so busy and frenetic with food that children may run around with scissors, undisturbed.

A Chinese Buca di Beppo, perhaps? Not quite. The portions are more moderate than the family-style restaurant famous for its abundance. But what Jumbo lacks in extreme portion it makes up for in extreme choice.

At least 100 items grace the menu: more than a dozen hot pots, a dozen noodle soups, a dozen regular soups and two dozen seafood entrees. (The list is long—longer than some genealogies.) But you can tell what people love just by glancing around the room: the crab with ginger and scallions, the Peking duck and the clams with black-bean sauce.

For the low price of $55, a family buffet comes with six dishes: egg-flower soup, clams with black-bean sauce, boiled shrimp, crab with ginger and scallions, deep-fried gray sole and black mushrooms with bok choy. If your party is extra hungry or extra large, it’s easy to add an order or two, such as the house-special chow mein for $6.50.

Apart from the incessant stream of sumptuous-looking plates coming from the kitchen, the most distinctive thing about dining at Jumbo is the preoccupying work of eating with your hands. The sweet meat of crab must be mined, and the exoskeleton bitten into and sucked on. The boiled shrimp must be peeled. The bones of the sole must be removed, sometimes from the teeth. Even the simplest clams can cause frustration.

The work is well worth the effort. The deep-fried gray sole was tender inside and crisp outside, with a delicate yet tangy flavor. The crab, though an ordeal, yielded lovely lumps of crabmeat and was accompanied by a gingery sauce that gave the dish richness and depth. The black mushrooms, likewise, burst with rich juices, a nice complement to the plain palate-cleansing bok choy. The most pedestrian parts of the meal were the egg-flower soup with jellyfish-like flecks—the consistency and mild flavor seemed good for children and the elderly (which are part of every big family); and the boiled shrimp, a plain but fresh affair. The house-special chow mein with Singapore-style noodles offered a pleasing crunch, a contrast to the soft and chewy texture of the other dishes.

Despite the inherent chaos that comes from serving large families and parties, with shellfish parts practically flying, the pace is manageable. A lot comes out of the kitchen at once, but you can linger over the meal, contemplating which bite will be your last. And though bringing a large party is not required, it certainly helps. How else does one sample a 100-item menu?

If you don’t have a family, bring only the closest of friends. Food like this is not shared with just anyone. Your boss may not appreciate being hit with a stray crab shell. And the friends who neither cook nor venture around the world with their appetites (yes, we all have these friends) will not understand the pleasures that lie just beyond the seasoned shells of modest crustaceans. Whomever you bring, know that a shared communal experience will take place—and it all happens with just the spin of a Lazy Susan.