There are two classic West Coast dishes famously (and perhaps falsely) invented in an overt attempt to demonstrate wealth. The first of these is the delicious Hangtown Fry, and of the two dishes has the more delightfully shifty and embarrassing history¹.
The other is the Crab Louie. I don’t care what Spokane and San Fransisco claim, Crab Louie reeks of a Seattle inception: proud, somewhat unwieldy and aspiring to greatness it doesn’t need to aspire to, a Crab Louie is essentially Pacific Northwest, relying on fresh crab to pull jazzhands in an otherwise unremarkable pile of ingredients.
But, like a lot of these dishes you imagine Rockefellers and Kennedys picking over while scheming the fate of the nation, they can be abysmal. New money can sometimes slip in canned crab meat or even gasp-worthy imitation crab. I got love for the imitation crab, but do not overestimate the Louis; without fresh, real crab, it’s just a mediocre salad.
Which is not to say that it can be thrown together without thought or skill. For example, it is a great mistake to assume that Thousand Island dressing is a reasonable substitute for Louie dressing — I assure you, despite what my mother says and despite the disapproving noise she’s making while reading this, Thousand Island is a different animal.
Both dressings are pink, yes, but Louie is the more mature of the two, packing both heat and acrid tang on top of a creamy, tomatoey base. Thousand Islands are typically sweet and chunky², which I’m sure holds charm for some. I’m trying to refrain from describing those people. To be polite.
over the years, Shrimp Louie has gained popularity, I suspect because fresh shrimp is much more readily found in typical grocery stores than crab. I think this is a perfectly reasonable and fancy substitute, though in my family it is also acceptable to pad out the crab with some shrimp to keep costs down without skimping. the dressing recipe serves two but is easily doubled.
1/4 cup mayonnaise
1/4 cup sour cream
1/4 cup ketchup
1 Tbsp. balsamic vinegar
1 Tbsp. strong horseradish
1/2 small garlic clove, finely grated
pinches of salt and pepper
2 Tbsp. milk, to thin (optional)
your lettuce of choice, though I wouldn’t stray from butter, iceberg or romaine
hard boiled egg
fresh cooked crab meat
fresh cooked shrimp
lightly cooked asparagus spears
- Prepare the dressing a few hours or even the day before to give everything a chance to mellow out. Just stir it all together. If you used a hippie ketchup you might like to also add a pinch of sugar.
- The proportions of a Louie are up to you, but like other chopped salads, the focus is less on the lettuce than the seafood, egg and vegetables. The salad is stunning when presented as a platter to serve from, too, and a nice chance to be arty. It seems silly to tell you how much of each vegetable to put in since it doesn’t really matter and you’re probably going to change it to your taste anyway.
- Layer a small amount of chopped lettuce over the platter and then decorate with large, showy slices of cucumber, tomato and egg. Pile the seafood in the center and serve the dressing on the side. An alternative that I don’t personally care for is to barely overdress one portion of the salad — either just the lettuce, or just the vegetables, or just the seafood — and then serve all assembled. However you serve it, be as generous as possible. It might be an old-fashioned recipe, but done right it’s still mighty impressive.
¹ I have a certain beef with the Hangtown Fry story. First of all, were eggs really a luxury item in mining towns because they were “delicate”? Admittedly all I know of this era I learned from Deadwood, but it seems like those guys maybe knew how to keep a chicken or two. And bacon had to be shipped from the East Coast, really? No one at all on the West Coast made bacon? This story is starting to sound like an episode of Drunk History. The other claim is that a prisoner ordered an oyster omelet because they’d have to go walk 100 miles through rough, snowy, shark-infested mountains to get the oysters and thus delay his execution. But for reals, if the prisoner had asked for durian would they have had to trek to Indonesia for him? Did the jailers have to do whatever the prisoners asked? Nothing about these stories makes sense.
² Which is not a bad thing to be, if you are for example a girl. I could be more accurately described as bitter and lumpy, which isn’t as great.