A bucket arrives table side. No plates, forks, or knives on the table—only butcher’s paper spread from edge to edge. A clear oven bag is pulled from the bucket, untied, and upended.
An avalanche of sweet and savory morsels spills out onto the table paper.
A rainbow of pink, white, and red steamed sea creatures settles in a pile with corn, potatoes, sausage, and striped mussels. Fragrant, buttery garlic sauce envelops everything, pooling on the paper and in the clam shells.
Bibs on, we dive in.
The huge rosy prawns are easily peeled, and provided industrial tools to help us crack open the armor of the more formidable crustaceans. Wrestling briefly with a fan of crab legs produces a fist-sized lump of meat. I drag it through the puddle of spiced garlic butter in from of me and sank my teeth into the sweet white flesh.
Damn it feels good to be a barbarian.
At Kai’s Crab Boil, you’re encouraged to dive in and get your hands dirty. Co-owner Tiffany Cho sings the praises of getting up-close and personal with your seafood.
“It adds that fun factor. You’re always told don’t play with your food, you have to use your knife and fork. But here you get to eat with your hands.”
Central Ohio now has two more communal eat-off-the-table style of crab boil restaurants than it did a year ago±which back then was zero—both on Bethel Road. Though Columbus may be home to multitudinous seafood lovers, there’s little chance of us becoming known as a seafood city when we have exactly no maritime real estate. But a mix of modern technology, a bit of gumption, well-timed ordering practices, and a seafood vacuum to fill means that Cbusers now have the opportunity to try a smorgasbord relatively new to the Midwest.
Kai’s isn’t the only place you get your fingers buttered. Nearby, Boiling Seafood has an eat-off-the-table option, as well. They also serve sandwiches and individual entrees for those of you who want a cleaner experience with your ocean critters.
Outside of obvious restaurant challenges like serving customers and keeping a clean shop, a seafood restaurant like Kai’s or Boiling Seafood has to do a careful dance with their living inventory. Lobsters, crabs, mussels, clams, and crawfish all arrive live, and hang out in a freezer for their short stay where they reach a hibernate-like state, but remain very much alive.
“Once we do get it in, it sells out so quickly,” says Cho. “Especially with the crawfish, we were surprised with how much demand there was for them in Ohio.”
Open for just over a month, Kai’s has been flush with customers so far. An evening at Boiling Seafood will bring bib-covered patrons many a shell to crack. It’s no mystery that this tradition of eating with your hands and abandon brings a buttery smile to Columbus faces.
By Jeni Ruisch / Originally appeared in Stock & Barrel Spring 2018