Thank God for Softies

Why soft shell crab season is my personal dining dream and where to make the most of this summer seafood delicacy in Philly.

A fried soft shell crab topped with caviar and hollandaise at My Loup in Rittenhouse. / Photograph by Hannah Albertine

The focus on seasonality has become standard in many of our city’s restaurant kitchens, expected to a point of becoming somewhat of a cliche. The truth is I’m rarely electrified by the promise of seasonal ingredients — with one exception.

Every year I’m shaken from my jaded state by the arrival of early summer ingredients. For me, the greatest of these pleasures is the soft shell crab, an item that has officially arrived to Philadelphia’s restaurant kitchens and special boards.

Softies are a harbinger of summer. Crabs molt when the water temperatures rise, starting in South Carolina and moving up the coast. These crabs react to the coming season by dropping their hard exteriors in preparation for growth. They’ve been delayed this year, coming in fits and starts because of supply chain issues caused by the uneven spring we’ve had.

Crabs are, in general, a labor-intensive food to prepare and eat, requiring delicate picking and never yielding quite enough meat for the work you put in. But soft shells allow me to eat crab with the abandon and carelessness of how I’d attack a perfect peach: juice dripping down my chin, mouth full.

Mostly, I want to eat them bare and with my hands, but at Sweet Amalia Market, about halfway between Center City and the Jersey Shore, chef Melissa McGrath has been serving them in sandwich form or in crab chowder. Her fry is tempura-style, which stays crunchy but doesn’t overwhelm the delicate crab flavor.

You can also double down on soft shell crabs at River Twice, where chef Randy Rucker and his team cook them over charcoal with koji butter. At My Loup in Rittenhouse, add caviar to a dish with soft shell crab and asparagus covered in hollandaise. Unnecessary, maybe. But I say let’s overdo it.

I say the same at Kalaya, where a recent special featured fried soft shell crabs in a peppery, turmeric-stained sauce.

Because of the limited quantities available, softies aren’t cheap. In addition to ordering them everywhere I can find them all summer, I’ll source some live ones as well. Get three per person (a bountiful order) and do nothing more than clean them, douse them in seasoned flour, and deep-fry them until golden-brown and crunchy. A squeeze of lemon juice and some aioli is all I’ll want to go alongside, something creamy and sour to balance their rich flavor and remind me that long summer evenings are well on their way.