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Good pickings Joe's Crab Shack has tasty food, jolly atmosphere

The Houston-based Joe's Crab Shack opened its Western New York doors this summer, and the crowds overflowed. No reservations are accepted; waits of well over an hour have been reported at dinner. People love seafood, and it's cooked well here. In fact, if you'll forgive a land lubber metaphor, I'd call the Shack an oasis in a surrounding desert of stultifying franchises.

And while the initial hubbub will die down somewhat, the cool move at the present time might be to come at midday when the waits are much shorter, even nonexistent, should the great god Neptune happen to smile.

That's what we did -- we showed up at 11:45 a.m., ate well and had fun, but we have a couple of caveats, too. For instance, don't come to the Shack if you're in a hurry -- even when you sit down, it's going to take you a while to pick all that crab. (The restaurant provides plastic pickers, but it takes a while to get the knack.)

Also, you probably shouldn't show if you don't like enforced jollity. Joe's is hellbent on being merry and quirky. If you're the kind of person who really doesn't want to watch the young, attractive, likable staff do the macarena every 35 minutes -- "enough already," the Companion muttered -- well, You Have Been Warned.

The menu is a riff on seafood, crab mostly. And by crab I mean three-legged varieties -- King Crab with its solid meat, Snow Crab which is sweet but tends to shatter and Pacific Dungeness. The East Coast aristocrat Blue Crab does not swim in these waters.

You order your crab in several flavors: Simply Steamed, Chesapeake style (the all-American Old Bay Seasoning), Garlic Herb, BBQ and even hotter Spicy Boil. Fire-Grilled crab is available, as well.

There's every possible permutation of all these -- we ordered the Crab Daddy Feast Bucket, big enough for two ($29.99). All three types of crab here, plus some steamed potatoes and corn on the cob (the corn is not local, but it picks up the seafood flavors). All of the above is wrapped in a nylon net bag, steamed and served in a tin bucket. Cute, cute, cute. We requested Old Bay seasoning, melted butter and vinegar on the side.

Even more daunting ensembles are readily available. What the menu calls Steampots, for instance, such as the KJ Steampot ($25.99) with snow crab, seared scallops and mussels in a light wine sauce with garlic. Or the Bean Town Bake ($39.99) that gives you two whole lobsters, one pound of clams, shrimp and smoked sausage. Would you believe it? This is meant for one.

For those of a more delicate appetite or who don't like crab, there are sandwiches, salads and fish dinners based on snapper or tilapia; even a 12-ounce rib eye ($19.99).

Also, note the tempting array of appetizers because they may well be the best thing the Shack offers. Crazy Good Crab Dip ($8.99), is served with assorted chips and is addictive. Even better are the well-named Great Balls of Fire ($7.29), jalapeno, shrimp and crabspheres batter-fried, accompanied by pretty good fried potatoes and ranch dressing.

email: janiceokun@yahoo.com.

> JOE'S CRAB SHACK

Review: 3 stars (Out of 4)

WHERE: 4125 Maple Road, Amherst 836-4739, www.joescrabshack.com . The first Western New York location of a Texas-based chain that emphasizes seafood, especially crab, in several different presentations. American Express, MasterCard, Visa.

FAVORITE DISH: Great Balls of Fire

NEEDS WORK: All dishes are satisfactory.

PRICE RANGE: Buckets of Crab from $21.99. Steampot for Two, $41.99. Sides from $2.69. Lunch specials from $7.69.

SERVICE: Very good and very friendly.

HOURS: 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. Sunday through Thursday; Friday and Saturday until 2 a.m. No reservations accepted.

WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: yes

PARKING: In the lot.

RATINGS: Stars reflect the overall dining experience at the time of The News' visit with greatest weight given to quality of the food.

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