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Taking a crack at Backfins is worth it

The oyster fork is a well-designed implement but hardly necessary for the enjoyment of a properly shucked oyster. Same goes for chopsticks in a sushi bar, mother-of-pearl caviar spoons and a number of other nice but nonessential tools for consuming seafood.

The wooden mallet that accompanies an order of blue crabs in a Chesapeake Bay crab shack (where it's poetically referred to as a knocker) -- that's another matter entirely. Just try cracking open the claw on a jumbo blue crab without one, and see how far you get. There's an almost feral pleasure, too, in thwacking the shell with the mallet and extracting the sweet flesh with your fingers.

It was a pleasure nearly impossible to come by in these parts until last summer, when Jim and John Jenkins opened Backfins Crabhouse in Wake Forest. The Jenkins brothers come from Maryland, where their family has been in the business for three decades. Their pedigree shows the moment you walk in the door and are transported to a crab shack on the Eastern Shore, right down to the stacks of paper towels and shakers of house crab seasoning mix on tables covered in brown butcher paper.

It doesn't take long, either, to realize that these guys know their crabs. Barring a backlog of orders on a busy night (which is common on weekends), your order of steamed crabs arrives quickly, impeccably fresh and expertly cooked, with fragrant clumps of spice and sea salt clinging to their shells. According to Jim Jenkins, some folks where he comes from like to mix the crab seasoning with a little vinegar (there's a bottle of that on the table, too) and dip their crabmeat in it. Personally, I like it just as it is.

The menu lists steamed crabs by the dozen, but you can order any quantity from a single crab all the way up to a bushel (a popular takeout quantity for a crowd). Crabs are priced according to size and the market, with recent prices ranging from $25 for a dozen regular (the smallest of the four sizes) to $59 for jumbo. There's also an all-you-can-eat Crab Feast (featuring regular size crabs), recently priced at $26.95 per person.

The larger sizes should become increasingly available in the coming weeks, but for now you'll have to call ahead and reserve any size larger than regular. It's worth the call, in my opinion. You'll get more meat for less work in the larger sizes. And, since you won't have to order as many crabs, the price premium isn't nearly as hefty as it looks. In fact, I'd guess that two people would be just as well fed on half a dozen jumbos as on a full dozen regulars.

While steaming may be the purist's way to eat blue crabs, it isn't the only way the Jenkins brothers know how to cook them. John Jenkins is justifiably proud of his Maryland-style crab cakes, which he notes are "all jumbo lump, with just enough cracker to hold them together." Maryland crab soup is loaded with crabmeat, too, though its delicate flavor gets lost in a dark, intensely seasoned melange of broth and vegetables that's reminiscent of Brunswick stew.

If you're not in the mood for crab, you'll still have plenty of rewarding options. Raw oysters, from the Gulf Coast or Carolina shores depending on the harvest, are plump and carefully shucked without spilling a drop of their precious liquor. They're also available steamed, as are small, briny clams. And, judging by the excellent fried oysters I had recently, it's a good bet that any of the fried seafood baskets -- shrimp, fish, oysters or a combo -- is a keeper. Peel-and-eat shrimp, boiled with the same spice mix that seasons the steamed crabs, are plump, sweet and properly cooked, though a couple of specimens were borderline mushy when I sampled them.

Service is friendly and cheerful, even when there's a line out the door and the pace in the dining room gets hectic. The level of experience is varied, but all the wait staff has been trained to show customers how to crack crabs. Even if you're a novice, you'll be thwacking like a pro in no time.

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