Review: Crab Cake Factory – Gossip Girl Edition
It’s a question I’ve heard posed in many ways for many reasons, but – what the hell is going on with the Crab Cake Factory? I’ll try to sort it out…
As a parasitic lamprey on the vast school of sharks that is the North Florida restaurant industry, I hear a whole lot of gossip. 99% of it is absolutely irrelevant. Sometimes it’s just speculation that gets twisted in an innocently messed up game of “Telephone” but occasionally it springs from something more sinister. Which leads me to the Crab Cake Factory…
I’ll be honest – I had a personal issue with this place from the beginning. As a professional supporter of local restaurants, I thought it was a bad move to put the word “factory” in the name of a place that wasn’t a chain and didn’t specialize in cheesecakes. (Though, someone’s wife does seem to now sell boozy cheesecakes there according to the flyer that misspelled the website.) I dragged my feet about going there until eventually a foodie friend of mine went and reviewed the place. (See that review here.) She was reportedly served low quality food (I’m being kind) which was the end of the Crab Cake Factory for me. Easy, right? Not so fast.
Earlier this month the Crab Cake Factory was closed. Because I wasn’t personally jazzed about the place, it was no big loss. It was no more a blip on my radar than any other restaurant I’d never tried closing. This is where the facts as I know them end and the wild speculative analysis begins.
Soon, mysterious rumblings began. I heard (in no particular order) they had been evicted, they had been sold, they had been the victim of a hostile takeover by aliens from the planet Meepzor, the chef had quit, the old chef had come back, the people who owned it before had been pushed out and were now sabotaging the new people by saying it was closed forever, an army of failed Top Cheftestants were taking over a Whataburger on Normandy, unicorn meat was going to be on the menu and leprechauns had taken over the garnish station. Now I was curious. Where was said Factory and what had become of said crabs? I investigated.
Back to cold hard facts. The Man called the number for “The Crab Cake Factory” that was listed on the internet. (904.249.4776) A man answered and said, “We sold it. It’s closed. We’re opening a new South American place in the old Homestead Restaurant. It will be called ‘The Copper Top.’” Crabcakefactoryjax.COM says the place is shut down and to watch for a new location. Crabcakefactoryjax.NET says they are open and all is well. They say that Executive chef Khan Vongdara is the new owner of the restaurant. (Previously of the recently shuttered Christopher Seafood & Company.) I called some people and obtained another phone number. (904.247.9880) I had The Man call it. It was answered as “The Crab Cake Factory.” The nice man on the other end of the line said they were, indeed, open and to come on by. So, we did. I am unsure why the old number is saying it is closed. Ignorance? Sabotage? Hard feelings? Amnesia? Maybe no one has mentioned they have reopened to them and they missed it on Jacksonville.com — four days ago.
I honestly wanted to like the new Crab Cake Factory. I wanted to be that first year intern that went in and triumphantly declared the patient back from the dead. I wanted to avoid the inevitable tongue lashing I will get from fans of the previous establishment. Unfortunately, I couldn’t have been more wrong. As is my habit, I started with a hand washing. I took our young daughter into the bathroom and had a look around. Those of you familiar with EatJax know that we always discuss the bathroom as a reflection of the restaurant’s attention to detail, cleanliness and general quality. I found a beautifully decorated bathroom with what I can only guess was dried urine around the base of the toilet bowl, no soap in the dispenser at lunch time on a Saturday and some sort of sticker half scraped off and gummed with glue on the wall over the sink. Ick. We nearly broke our necks getting back to the table on the freshly waxed floor (which we weren’t warned about until we asked what the heck was wrong with the floor). The waiter said, “We still have one more buff to go.” Nice.
Determined to soldier on, I flipped through the entire appetizer and dinner menu to get to the lunch menu at the back. I wanted to set them up for success. I ordered the Jumbo Lump Crab Cake Sandwich ($9.95) and The Man ordered the Crab Melt Sandwich ($9.95). These are expensive ingredient sandwiches in a prime Beach & Penman location and we were expecting a restaurant on its best behavior due to the re-launch. Balloons festooned the entrance and there were only a few tables occupied. Surely the food the place was named after on a slow day at re-launch would be the best of the best from this place, right?
First we tried The Man’s Crab Melt Sandwich.
This is (according to the menu) “Lump crab meat, combined lime juice, mayo & mustard with Swiss cheese, served on lightly buttered sour dough.” The bread was extremely stiff and tough. It was so greasy that we had to wipe the butter off our hands. Sadly, none of this lubrication helped actually toast the bread, as you can clearly see. It was more like stale bread that just hurt to eat. The appearance was awful but, as The Man said, “Melts are supposed to be ugly.” The cheese’s texture seemed much more “stringy” than Swiss should be, especially at a lukewarm temperature. The crab itself wasn’t bad, but it was by no means well seasoned. However, the Cole slaw made up for it by being overloaded with salt, but not much else. Both of us left our Cole slaw after only one bite because we found it inedibly salty. The Man (always the intrepid one) put a few bits of Cole Slaw ON the sandwich and was happier. The fries were (as you can clearly see) a soggy mess. If I were to hazard a guess, they might have been cooked at too low a temperature as they were potatoey but wilted, mealy and undercooked. They were supposed to be “seasoned” but we only got some seasoning salt sprinkled heavily on a few fries, the rest were not salted or seasoned.
Next we tried my Jumbo Lump Crab Cake Sandwich.
This is “Chef’s special recipe of seasoned lump crab, fried, served with tartar sauce.” I had the same fries and Cole Slaw. I did not add the slaw to my sandwich. I did add all the veg and some tartar sauce and ended up pulling the onions off because they were extremely pungent. The crab cake itself was underseasoned, but cooked to a nice brown on the outside. It’s hard to tell from the photo (I was undah-cuvah!) but the cake is round. This is extremely generous, but results in an unfortunate texture on the inside of the cake. It was moist to the point of gooeyness. Even more sadly, I received a few pieces of bonus cartilage. The bun was nothing to write home about and the whole mess just squished out the sides and fell on the plate as it was eaten.
Sadly, the problem here isn’t with the quality of the food or the price paid for that quality. (I do not presume to speak for the dinner menu where $27 gets you the Crab Cake entree.) The problem is what is done with that food. The crab is being sorely overworked in the cake. If this is Jumbo Lump crab, they are beating it to death before it ever hits a pan. The final texture inside is akin to tuna fish sandwich filling. Seasoning is spotty and inconsistent when it shows up at all. The Cole slaw is a lost cause. The fries would be beautiful if they were cooked properly. The worst of this is that these things are FIXABLE. These were both signature dishes from an establishment on life support. One might wonder if they just weren’t ready for prime-time yet, but they are already reaching out to other bloggers I know to invite them back in. They should have rocked the house.
In my opinion, Crab Cake Factory needs to do the following things TODAY:
1. Scale back the menu – it is a monster. You could fit the Cliff’s Notes for War & Peace on there. There is hope in this regard because the website says, “Executive chef Khan Vongdara presents an innovative menu of the freshest seafood and seasonal favorites with an eclectic fair. His famous Crab Cakes are on top of the menu. He is introducing the on the month of February and brand new menu!” (sic) I say, do what you do and do it right. You are the Crab Cake Factory - make good crab cakes. Do you really need Pasta Jambalaya, Lobster Ravioli, Chicken & Broccoli Alfredo, Chicken Picatta, New York Strip, Filet Mignon, French Pork Chops, Roasted Rack of Lamb … ah, screw it. I’m exhausted already.
2. Respect your ingredients. You took rather decent cabbage, tasty jumbo lump crab and really good potatoes and turned them into that disaster up above. None of it is bad food – it’s bad preparation.
3. Either bring up the quality or bring down the price. $30 after tip for two people with sandwiches and sodas (no apps, no alcohol) is steep for lunch – even near the beach. Make me want to pay you that for lunch. Your ingredients are worth it – the quality of the dishes are not.
4. Clean the freakin’ bathroom. Take 10 minutes and finish scraping the giant sticker off the very expensive tile above the sink. P.S. – Dried urine is icky. Even things that LOOK like dried urine are icky. It’s the stall all the way to the left.
5. Fix the floor. (Or at least warn people with two preschoolers before one of them takes a tumble.)
In the end, who owns it, who the chef is or who might be telling the world you’re closed means nothing if your food isn’t up to snuff. The sad thing about gossip is that there is often a grain of truth in it. This is a restaurant in transition no matter how you slice it. Loyal fans should support it with their business and their constructive criticism. I’m always rooting for the local folks. I hope they get their act together before we see that “Closed” sign up again in the very near future.
Visit the new Crab Cake Factory website for current contact information, location and menu.
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