Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Takeout from Swan Oyster Depot

If you live in San Francisco, and you like seafood, you've undoubtedly heard of Swan Oyster Depot.  One of the most famous places in the city, although along with having the freshest seafood in the city, the other thing they are known for is the epic wait.  Open Mon-Sat, lunch only.  No reservations.  Cash only.  And, it is tiny, just counter seats.

I've wanted to try their food for ages, but I haven't been willing to commit to getting there at 10am when they open, or waiting in line for hours.  Plus, lunch time, mostly weekdays, isn't when I'm ever free.  So while Swan Oyster Depot has been at the top of my list of places to try for ages, I hadn't ever managed to visit.

But I knew a less known fact.  They offer takeout.  And, I was tasked with organizing dinner for a group at work one night.  Being me, I wasn't willing to just order cold, soggy delivery pizza, and decided to treat the team to something special.

Although I knew Swan Oyster Depot was not open for dinner, I wasn't quite sure when the afternoon they closed, so I called ahead to find out.  It was 2:30pm when I called, and I was told that they don't close until 5:30pm, but that if I didn't get into line soon, I wouldn't be able to be seated.  And, yes, sure enough, when I approached Swan Oyster Depot at 3pm, there was a huge line down the sidewalk. People are crazy.

On the phone, I said that I'd be getting takeout, and I was advised that I could just walk right in.  Even knowing that I should do this, I felt a bit strange prancing past everyone, and it seemed like people were glaring at me.  Maybe I was being paranoid.  Maybe they were just bored from waiting for so long and had nothing better to do, but I certainly felt unwelcome, by the other patrons.

There is no menu online, or out front, so I had to walk in to see the menu, printed on a large board behind the counter.  I'd done enough research that I pretty much knew what I was going to order, but I wanted to be sure the menu matched what I'd read about online.  Prices were higher than I'd previously seen, but besides that, it all looked about the same.  Seafood cocktails, seafood salads, clam chowder, smoked salmon or trout.  That was about it.  Of course, there are also plenty of other items not listed anywhere, as I saw several people eating the sashimi style dish I'd read about, and I saw calamari salad in a bin in the window display area.

I took a moment to glance around and take the place in.  It was fairly fascinating.  Just a long counter, in a narrow area, each seat obviously filled.  Behind the counter were about 3 workers, all constantly moving, pouring drinks, putting salads together.  As Yelpers have noted, none wore gloves, and did seem to go back and forth between touching the seafood, money, and the register without ever washing their hands.  I choose to ignore this fact, but it was a bit disturbing.

I expected that I'd still need to wait, even though getting takeout, so I was surprised when someone immediately asked if I'd been helped yet.  I said that I wanted to make a takeout order, and he promptly replied, "ok, what would you like?"  He didn't reach for a pen or paper to write anything down, which I expected.  I figured he'd add my order to the queue, along with all of those for people seated at the counter, and I'd have a good 30 min or so wait.  Not the case.  The moment I said my first item, he started fetching it.  And so it continued for each thing I ordered.  I was shocked to say the least.  Why on earth are all these people waiting in line, when you can waltz right in, order immediately, and have your order filled, immediately?  The more you know ...

The service was really good.  I think I was asked by every single employee if I was being helped.  They really wanted to serve me fast!  The guy who did take my order was courteous and very efficient.  He asked for clarification on several items, gave me a taste of the smoked trout just to make sure I liked it, and was meticulous in putting together each dish, even for takeout.

I honestly have no idea why people wait to eat here, and I have no intention of ever doing so.  Perhaps it is part of the experience, but their takeout system is just so good, I don't know why you'd ever do otherwise.  And I'm obviously not alone; while I was getting my order, another lady came in to pick up her order which she'd called in, and another guy came in and REALLY did it right - the first thing he asked for was a glass of wine while he waited for his order to be assembled!  And he had a charge account, so he didn't have to deal with the cash-only nature.  Clearly a regular, and he did it like a pro.

Next time I need takeout during the day, Swan Oyster Depot is certainly near the top of my list, and I'd gladly return.  It also seems like a good place to just get smoked salmon or trout, or even cooked shrimp or crab by the pound.  Quality seafood, for sure.  I'm so glad I finally got to experience it, sans waiting!
Fantastic packaging!
Everything came incredibly well packaged so nothing leaked, or got sloshed around.  The sauces for each dish were in individual labelled containers.  Most impressive was the packaging of the salads.  I ordered two, so he made a tower of salads, basically, a plate with one salad, topped with another plate, clamshell-style so it wouldn't spill out, with the second salad on top of that, in the same manner.  Then, the whole thing was wrapped in butcher paper, and taped up.  It didn't budge.  When I unpacked it, it was totally unharmed.  More places could really learn from them in how to package their take out!
Sourdough bread, with butter stuck between each slice.
Each salad came with a wedge of sourdough bread this size.  I was amused by the pads of butter stuck between each slice.  Since I hate sourdough, I didn't try it.  It smelt VERY sourdough, and everyone else seemed to enjoy it.
Combo cocktail.  $12.
First, we started with a cocktail.  The choices were crab, shrimp, prawn, oyster, clam, or combination.  Since I couldn't really narrow it down, I went for the combination.

The guy preparing my order knew better than I did, and questioned my order.  He let me know that it would contain crab, shrimp, prawns, oysters, and clams, and asked if I wanted all of these things, or if I wanted anything left out.  Well, indeed, I didn't want clams or oysters.  Perhaps this is a common request?

When dining at the counter, the cocktails come in classic cocktail glasses, layered with cocktail sauce, with horseradish in little jars alongside to add in, along with lemons to squeeze over.  For takeout, I was offered to have the cocktail sauce mixed in, or on the side.  I asked for it on the side.  The cocktail was layered, starting with a generous pile of bay shrimp, then shredded crab meat, then several chunks of lump crab meat, and finally, three prawns.

The shrimp were tiny, fresh, but not that interesting.  No real reason to have them in a cocktail.  The crab was likewise fresh, and I liked how precise they were in giving a mix of both types of meat.  But again, I didn't find myself really just wanting to dunk it in the cocktail sauce.

The prawns on the other hand, were just perfect.  I didn't actually know prawns could taste this good.  I've had plenty of shrimp/prawn cocktails in my life, and generally, they just aren't that great.  Often the seafood is rubbery.  Or not well cleaned.  These were perfection.  Perfectly poached, not remotely rubbery, with a bit of snap to them.  I polished off all the prawns in no time.

The cocktail sauce is housemade, and fantastic.  I was asked if I wanted horseradish added, since I wouldn't be able to add it myself at the counter.  I said yes.  He added just the right amount to zest it up.  We were provided with far more sauce than necessary, and I may or may not have decided to drink some like it was soup.  Its totally almost just like gazpacho, right?

$12 was a great price for the generous amount of seafood included.  My favorite part of the entire meal was a prawn dipped in the cocktail sauce.  Next time, I'd probably skip the crab and shrimp, and just go for a prawn cocktail.  Or two.  But I'd certainly get it again.  Favorite dish of the order.
Calamari salad. $10.00.
Next we had calamari salad.  Not listed on the menu anywhere, but I'd seen reviews of it, and saw it on the side, so I asked for it.

Calamari, like shrimp or prawns, are also often poorly cooked and rubbery, or poorly cleaned.  This calamari suffered from none of these problems.  It was tender, not rubbery, expertly prepared.  People who have never had good calamari need to have this, to understand what it can be like!

The salad was a mix of bodies and rings, lightly dressed with olive oil, with bits of celery and red onion.  I found the red onion to be too harsh when I got a bite of it, but overall the salad was light, fresh, and refreshing.  Probably the best calamari salad I've ever had, and they even provide the very easy recipe.  My third favorite of the dishes.

The portion was about the same as the combo cocktail, $10.  For some reason this felt a bit high to me, but I honestly have no idea what I'm basing that on.
Combo Louis Salad.  $21.
Now for the item that most people seem to get, a seafood salad.  Available with shrimp, prawns, crab, or combo.  I again went for the combo, since I had no idea which would be best.  In this case, the combo did not include clams or oysters.

The salad was about as simple as it gets.  The base, shredded iceberg lettuce.  No fancy greens, no other vegetables.  Just shredded iceberg.  It was fresh and crisp though, juicy, and really did pair well with the dressing and seafood.  I can safely say however, that this was the first time I've had iceberg since I can remember ... well, probably since I had the crab louis salad at Crazy Crab'z.

I did sort of wish the salad had carrots, egg, green beans, or something else in it.  What was there was good, for sure, but very, very basic.

The seafood used was the same as in the cocktail, and again, attention was paid to the amounts of everything added.  First the bay shrimp, then the crab meat, then several chunks of lump crab meat, and 3 more prawns.  Garnished with lemon wedges.

In the cocktail, the prawns were my favorite, since they were best to just pick up and dunk in the sauce, and seemed to go best with the cocktail sauce.  Even though it was the same seafood used in this dish, my preferences on the salad were the total opposite: I didn't like the prawns as much, they were too big and clunky, and didn't go great with the louis dressing.  No fear, I just plucked them out, and dipped them in the cocktail sauce instead.  The crab and shrimp both were good with the dressing, but I liked the shrimp the best.  A bite with crispy lettuce, a shrimp or two, and creamy dressing was a great balance of flavor and texture.

Speaking of that dressing, I asked to have it on the side, and the guy preparing my order assured me that he'd always put the dressing on the side for the salad for takeout.  When dining in, you could have it on the side or on top, and I saw people ordering it both ways.  The dressing was textbook louis dressing, creamy, rich, zesty.  Bits of pickles inside for texture and flavor.  Perfect thing to have on the salad.  They also offer oil & vinegar instead of louis dressing, but ... why?  (Side note: I had extra dressing left over, which I later used to dip Utz Crab Chips in.  It sounds crazy, but it was very tasty.   Highly recommended!)

At $21, this was an expensive salad, but the portion of seafood was generous.  My second favorite dish.  I'd get it again, but I'd be tempted to get just shrimp or crab, and I do wish the salad had a little bit more going on.
Smoked Trout.  $10.75.
I wanted to get something besides just shellfish, and I know they are known for their smoked salmon.  I asked about it, but was told that they were out of it.  Doh.  But he did mention that they had smoked trout too, so I said I'd like some of that.

I'd already said I wanted it, when he offered me a taste, just to be sure.  It was flaky, and oh so smoky.  One of the more intense smoked fish I've encountered.  Very good!  He also suggested that I order it by the pound, rather than in the preparation that they use at the counter (atop buttered bread), since that wouldn't hold up well.  I took his word for it, and just got a fillet.

A good snack this way, and I could easily see myself stopping in to get smoked salmon or trout to have with a bagel and cream cheese, or otherwise as part of a breakfast spread.  Far better than anything you'd get at the grocery store.

My least favorite thing we had, but only because it was just smoked trout, not a real dish.
Swan Oyster Depot on Urbanspoon
Related Posts with Thumbnails