I learned a valuable lesson recently. When someone hands you a plastic bib with a crab on it, it’s not for decoration. It’s not a cheeky hipster addition to your ensemble to post to Instagram before discarding. No. When someone hands you a plastic bib, they’re sending you a warning. It’s about to get messy.
Sauce and Toss, a Shockoe Bottom eatery primarily focused on seafood boils, is a no-frills experience. Lacquered picnic tables, sporting only large rolls of brown paper towels, sit in pairs down the center of the restaurant. On one side is a walk-in cooler that displays row upon row of beer, wine and sake. On the other side, behind the shrimp, crab legs and other seafood on display, are large pots of boiling seasoned water just waiting to engulf whatever you desire.
We start with the shrimp boil ($14 per pound), which includes potatoes, corn and sausage. Opting for medium spice, we receive our steaming bag shortly after we find our table. The shrimp are cooked nicely when our order arrives, although I regret not upping the spiciness, because I’m mostly getting Old Bay Seasoning. I advise eating quickly because the shrimp continue to cook in the bag, and as time goes on, they get mealy. The potatoes and corn are parboiled in plain water and as a result have very little to offer, but the sausage is spicy, juicy and brings some much-needed flavor.
The lobster boil ($16 per tail) spends too much time in the pot and is overcooked and chewy. Here, surprisingly, the star of this dish turns out to be the corn. We went with the spicy option, and the sweetness contrasts nicely with the bite of the heat.
I can’t resist wings when I see them on a menu, especially when that menu boasts that its wings are specially brined and coated with homemade breading ($4.99 for five). We order them tossed in sweet garlic sauce and, while a touch soggy, they’re tangy and moist on the inside. I enjoy them but wish for a little more crunch.
Oddly sweet is the nicest way I can describe the tuna salad roll ($7). It’s a shame, because the bread on which it arrives is buttery, garlicky and baked to a perfect golden brown. I’m at a loss to explain how the tuna got so sugary and am unable to take more than three bites. The Old Bay-coated fries that came along for the ride are just average.
Seafood gumbo ($8), thick and brown, comes full of tiny shrimp and bay scallops. It’s got a nice kick, but there’s a slight metallic and bitter aftertaste I can’t quite place until my companion remarks that it reminds him of Campbell’s Soup, “but not in a bad way,” he says.
Hand-breaded to order, the butterflied shrimp ($7.99), fried oysters ($7.99) and tilapia ($7.99) all come out of the fryer nicely crisped and lightly salted.
The shrimp and oysters are good — although the oysters have a better seafood-to-breading ratio, in favor of the oyster, and I prefer their brininess. Of the choices, go for the fresh tilapia. It’s a large serving, the bread crumbs a deep brown on the outside, the fish tender, flaky and steaming on the inside. It’s the fish stick of my dreams, and I mean that as a real compliment.
Sauce and Toss is not a place to go when you want an upscale meal, especially if you want to eat while wearing light-colored clothing. It’s not fancy — but it’s also not pretending to be anything other than what it is: a spot for simple food served in an approachable way, at an affordable price. S
Sauce and Toss
Mondays-Thursdays 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fridays-Saturdays 11:30 a.m.-midnight.
1711 E. Franklin St.