Hidden behind the parking garage of the downtown library is-according to Trip Advisor-the best place to eat in Juneau for two years running. Funny thing is, if you live here, there's a good chance you've never been. Tracy's King Crab Shack has been getting a lot of attention from just about everyone but the locals. It's been praised in publications like Food & Wine Magazine, Condé Nast Traveler, and most recently in this month's issue of Maxim Magazine.
All the media attention has come as a surprise to proprietor Tracy LaBarge, who says she received an e-mail from Maxim about two weeks before the issue went to press.
"They just said we want to put you as one of the top meals to eat before you die, and you're the only Alaska restaurant," she said. "So I sent them some crab, and bisque and a T-shirt that said, 'Tracy gave me crabs.'"
From May to September, LaBarge sells premium Alaskan king crab legs and other Crab-based delights from the window of her, well, shack. The menu changes based on what's available, but her specialty is Alaskan king crab. This summer marks her fourth in business.
Since leaving her home state of Colorado for Alaska in 1992, she has been employed primarily in tourism. Soon after she arrived, LaBarge fell in love with crabbing. She remembers pulling her first king pot in 1996, the same year she moved to Juneau.
"I was amazed. I loved being on the water, I loved the physical part of it, and I loved the excitement of pulling up the pot and seeing what's in it. Then you try it."
The idea for the crab shack started out as a joke among friends.
"I used to take people out crabbing all the time just for fun, and I said well I'm going to buy a hot dog cart and start selling you guys one leg at a time. It would be a heck of a lot cheaper than me getting out on the boat and buying gas...So that's how it started, but it always stuck in my mind."
It was LaBarge's father who laid the foundation for her shack, long before she set foot on Alaska soil. She said that during many childhood road trips, her father would only stop at dives and shacks.
"He said that was always where you could find the best food for the best value," she said. "Those were good memories."
Before meeting with LaBarge my husband and I went on a covert mission to sample her wares. We've been in Alaska long enough to officially consider ourselves crab snobs, but Tracy's product was decidedly stand-out, with a fresh sweetness, and bright coral red color. The legs are obviously the best way to appreciate the crab (you can get a large king leg for $14, or a leg combo with crab cakes, crab bisque and garlic roll for $19.95), but it was the crab roll ($15) that surprised me most. Even behind the veil of a hoagie bun, and topped with a mess of coleslaw, there was kaboom crab flavor in every bite.
One of the first things I asked her when we sat down to talk was, "What makes your crab so good?"
Although she chose not to disclose which plant she gets her crab from, LaBarge reported that she did a lot of homework to find an Alaskan processing plant that produced the ultimate king-not too salty, not too stringy, just naturally good fresh crab flavor.
"You're not going to fool Alaskans," LaBarge said. "I mean, they know what crab tastes like. ... I knew the quality had to be there for the locals to come."
Once the crab is in her possession, LaBarge uses her swear-by method of preparing it (when frozen):
1. Steam the crab using plain water. Boiling makes it mushy.
2. Cook it frozen. If you thaw it out you lose a lot of juice.
3. Overcooking makes crab stringy. Steam for 10 minutes, and then test the meat by sticking a knife into the big end of the leg. When it's soft, like butter, the crab is done.
Tracy's King Crab Shack, located off S. Franklin St. (behind the library parking garage) is open daily from 10:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. For more information, call 723-1811 or visit www.kingcrabshack.com.
Ginny Mahar is a trained chef and food writer who works at Rainbow Foods. She writes about all things "food" in Juneau, from cooking with local ingredients to restaurant news and food events. View more of her food writing at ginnymahar.blogspot.com.