"Is it any good?” a man calls from his car after pulling into the lot and spotting us at nearby table. Mouths stuffed, we smile and nod while he turns into the only available parking space.
Could it be that he’s unaware that Sugar’s Crab Shack, in Richmond’s North Side, is a Croaker’s Spot spinoff?
Sugar’s is different, though, because it’s walk-up service only, with eight umbrella-topped tables outside. Beach-joint-style, a sign shows a picture of a crab with the letters “X-ing” below. Rolls of brown paper towels are attached to the railing.
Vintage soul music plays Isaac Hayes, Al Green and the Spinners, prompting customers to drum their fingers or tap their feet. Whether they’re waiting to order or pick up, people are socializing in line and across the tables and benches.
Just another day at Sugar’s, where fried seafood reigns supreme and strapping portions are the norm, as if leftovers are a God-given right. The crowd, I wager, is among the most diverse you’ll find at a Richmond eatery.
Only an ocean breeze could improve fried shrimp (five pieces/$12.99, eight pieces/$17.49), butterflied and deep-fried to a golden, crackling crisp, while fries that taste simply of potatoes, salt and pepper are as homey as they are irresistible.
When I go to make my order, the smiling server behind the window clues me in to the fried shrimp lunch special ($8.99), explaining that I’ll get one fewer shrimp, but that coleslaw, bread pudding and a drink are included in the price. Sold! Bread pudding redolent of baking spices and studded with raisins hastens the departure of every last bite.
On a busy Saturday, I strike gold with a fried, wild-caught flounder sandwich special ($8.99), which delivers a skin-on piece of lightly fried flounder nearly three times the size of the bun, with the freshest of mixed greens, tomato and red onion as accomplices.
Feeling guilty about so much fried food? Go directly to the crab cake salad ($14.99) for a fat, meaty crab cake over sprightly greens with onions, tomatoes and cucumbers. Dressing comes in packets courtesy of Newman’s Own.
I can’t guarantee they’ll still be on the menu, but if so, don’t miss Sugar’s soft-shell crab sandwich ($12.99), which gets my taste buds tap-dancing and makes a convert out of my companion, a soft-shell virgin, right before my eyes. Potato salad along the lines of Mrs. Marshall’s rounds out lunch.
Repeat trips hook fish bites (sixpieces/$6.99, 12 pieces/$13.99), breaded nuggets of lake trout, atop a raft of buttered toast with Sugar’s worthy house-made tartar sauce for dipping. Deviled crabs ($3.99), the house specialty, are the Atlantic coast versions with a spiced filling served in a crab shell rather than deep fried.
Weighed out in front of us, and then steamed and spiced to order, jumbo black tiger shrimp (market price) make for a fine feast of shelling and eating, spices soon satisfyingly embedded under our fingernails. With vegetarian baked beans ($2.49-$4.99) loaded with onions as a side, it could’ve been a grab-and-go picnic instead of the impromptu meal we’re enjoying.
The fast-casual set up — one window for ordering, one for pickup — sometimes means items are lost in translation. Twice, ordered items go missing, necessitating a return to the window, where you’ll have to specify which condiments and how many utensils you want in order to get any at all.
Not everyone grasps the outdoor casual concept. On my third visit, a man looks at the menu and announces that it’s too expensive for fish.
“Yeah, but it’s good, so it’s worth it,” a woman tells him. “I’m here every week. Today is my second time this week!”
Unconvinced, he harrumphs and leaves. “You get what you pay for,” she calls to his back. Truth.
While sitting at an outdoor table under blues skies, eating a soft-shell sandwich and listening to the Friends of Distinction’s “Grazing in the Grass,” all is right in my world. Like a lot of Jackson Ward and North Side residents, I’m delighted to have a new spot in an underserved area where the prices and quality prompt repeat visits — and both the music and food hit all the right notes. S
Sugar’s Crab Shack
Mondays-Wednesdays 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Thursdays 11 a.m.-10 p.m.;
Fridays 11 a.m.-11 p.m.;
Saturdays noon-11 p.m.;
Sundays noon-9 p.m.
2224 Chamberlayne Ave.