Key Ingredient

In Season: Soft Shell Crabs

By: The Local Palate

Chef Thai Phi of Pink Bellies in Charleston can feel it in his bones when soft shell crab season is approaching in the Lowcountry. “When the temperature creeps up to the 60s and 70s coming out of winter, I know it’s time for soft shell crabs,” he says.

When the time does come, Phi is sure to make the trip to Miss Paula’s off Shem Creek to pick up the freshest crabs from the bounty of spring; he uses them for his well-known soft shell crab “bun mi” sandwich at Pink Bellies. Phi takes a simple approach to prepare the fried soft shell crabs and says that keeping it simple “ensures that the product can speak for itself.”

How to Make Fried Soft Shell Crabs Like a Chef

Pink Bellies' double fried soft shell crab sandwich

Double Fry 

Frying soft shell crabs at home can be quite the adventure. Phi makes double-fried soft shell crabs to achieve an extra crispy exterior. He likes to fry his in 325-degree oil, leave at room temperature, and then fry again until golden brown and delicious.

Simple Breading

Traditional breading methods typically involve cornmeal or a seasoned breading mix, but cornstarch is Phi’s favorite because it achieves that light but crunchy exterior. He says, “We make sure we dust it in every crevice” before hitting the fryer—the soft shells come out perfect every time.

Crab as a Crouton

Although a sandwich is Phi’s go-to method for devouring these seasonal delicacies, placing a double-fried soft shell crab on top of a cold vermicelli noodle bowl is another creative way to enjoy them when the super-short season comes around.

Mayo, Dill, and Lemon

These three simple ingredients are the recipe for success when constructing a template for soft shell crab accompaniments, according to Phi. He believes that this combination elevates any type of seafood and brings out a lot of flavor without losing the integrity of the product itself

Double-Fried Soft Shells:

  1. Clean 2 soft shell crabs by cutting off face, flap, and gills with scissors. 
  2. Heat canola oil in a cast-iron skillet to 325 degrees. Coat all crevices of crabs with cornstarch and fry for 1 minute. Rest for 5 minutes at room temperature, then fry again for 2 to 3 minutes until cooked through, to yield a crispier exterior. Lightly season with salt immediately after frying. 
  3. Assemble as Phi’s soft shell “bun mi” sandwich (recipe below), dip in lemon dill mayonnaise, or serve as a crab crouton.

Get the Recipe: Soft Shell “Bun Mi”

Pink Bellies double fried soft shell crab bun mi

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Pink Bellies Soft Shell “Bun Mi”

At Charleston’s wildly popular restaurant Pink Bellies, this double-fried soft shell sandwich is a seasonal special that sells out nightly.

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  • David R.
    April 10, 2023 at 5:19 pm

    Dear Local Palate,
    I received the Spring Issue 2023 just before flying to Charleston to hook up with my long time fishing buddy from Columbia. From the airport we went directly to Pink Bellies and ordered the Sui Cao Dumplings, the Garlic KFC Wings, one (only 1 per table allowed due to limited numbers of crabs so early in the spring) Soft Shell Crab Bun Mi Sandwich and the Not Fried Chicken Ice Cream! All were spectacularly delicious. Paired with Redbreast 12 Irish Whiskey on ice. PERFECT. Thanks for your recommendation.

    David R.
    Arlington, Virginia