Abucket 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 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 front of me, and sink 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; we encourage that …. we encourage you to get messy. That’s why we have the big wash sinks; it works a lot better than those little wet naps.”
Central Ohio now has two more communal, eat-off-the-table style 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 little bit of gumption, well-timed ordering practices, and a seafood vacuum to fill mean that Columbusites now have the opportunity to try a smorgasbord relatively new to the Midwest. And a new kind of food means a new way to eat.
“That’s what this whole thing’s about,” says co-owner Kai Sheng, “different eating experiences. You have to use your hands. You have to get messy.”
Kai’s isn’t the only place to 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 that 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, dungeness crabs, mussels, clams, and crawfish all arrive live, and hang out in a freezer for their short stay where they reach a hibernative 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. With crawfish, there’s a season, so you can’t always get a lot. With our vendors and sourcing everything, we have to make sure we get enough, but we don’t want to get too much and have live items die. So it’s managing that balance.”
Despite its distance from the ocean, Columbus actually has few hurdles to becoming a “seafood city.” It just takes strategy. Getting the items onto ice and into shipment can have them at a central Ohio doorstep in less than a day from being caught. The rest is about predicting sales, and knowing your product. Running a seafood restaurant requires Sheng and Cho to be business people with a keen knowledge of biology, anatomy, and geography. Relying on wild caught animal populations means your stock changes with season and migration habits. Blue crabs come from the east coast of the U.S., while king crabs will be shipped in from varying spots around the Pacific rim, depending on the time of year. Late spring and early summer brings the flood of crawfish from Louisiana.
Only open a month at the time of writing, 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.
Kai’s is located at 839 Bethel Rd. and Boiling Seafood is down the street at 1446 Bethel Rd.