Recent word has been that Cantoon Garden's salt(ed) baked soft shell crab preparation is superior to Great New York Noodletown's. I stopped by yesterday around 4-ish for a late lunch, intent on seeing whether I would agree.
Man, it ain't even close.
The crab was served cut into large pieces, with a notably darker complexion than that of the Noodeltown crawlers. Upon ripping off my first leg, it was apparent that they were also both more greasy and less crunchy. I don't mind grease, given the right dish, but the loss of crispness (comparatively speaking) was a big disappointment. Both of these also resulted in a meal that sat more heavily.
The crab coating at Cantoon Garden is less salty than Noodletown's, and sports more of a garlicky edge. The flavor was fine (overall, I still enjoyed my meal), but it wasn't anything special. Had it been my first-ever "salt baked" experience, I wouldn't have bothered remembering the term. After trying my first plate of salt-baked squid at Noodletown years ago (which was my introduction to the cooking technique), I was struck by how different and amazing it was. Cantoon Garden's attempt offered up no flavors that I haven't been tasting at Chinese restaurants for the better part of my life.
The flavor of the crab itself was nice at Cantoon, though more subdued, likely a result of the heavier coating. Even though the flavoring is bolder at Noodletown -- owing in no small part to the kick of saltiness -- that fresh, ocean-y flavor jumps forward. It's such a sweet balance that they've achieved.
Personal tastes will be what they are, and I don't doubt that the crabs at Cantoon Garden will ring as more appealing to some. But I can't see myself ever choosing to get my fix there again knowing that Noodletown is standing just around the corner.
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