"This time of year it's huge; they're in season right now, we sell 'em May through September - large portion of our sales," said Mark Palicki, the VP of Marketing for Fortune Fish. "You have one to two hours to get them out of the water before they form a new shell. Basically the soft shell is losing its old shell, it's creating a new shell; as soon as they pull 'em out of the water they cannot form a shell, they need the water to form a shell."
As a cook, Jason Hammel looks for a few key traits.
"They don't have to be wiggling, but a good wiggle is a clear sign of freshness and that's what we're looking for," said Hammel. "I was looking at the skin to make sure that it wasn't too leathery and it was supple and had a nice moisture content there too."
As part of Lula's brunch sandwich series, Hammel has created an impressive softshell sandwich: the fried crustacean rests on a bed of cooked bacon, some German-style coleslaw, and is topped with a sunnyside farm egg; it's all held together between a large buttered bun that's been slathered with a funky gribiche.
"Which is like a fancy tartar sauce, basically. It's an aioli with a lot of pickled ramps and herbs and mustard and lots of good stuff," he said.
The crab is cleaned with a kitchen shears, then dredged in buttermilk seasoned with cayenne and espelette chili powder before getting dredged through seasoned flour, before hitting a hot bath of rice bran oil, where it frys until crisp, about two minutes.
The bun is buttered and covered with that gribiche, then comes the coleslaw, a strip or two of bacon, the fried crab and finally, a sunnyside egg seasoned with just a bit of salt, espelette and black pepper. If you can't fathom it with two hands, a knife-and-fork is always a possibility.
"It's so seasonal. Think about spring is all about sweet things - peas and freshness like that - and just the sweetness of the crab in that sandwich takes it over the top," Hammel said.
The soft shell sandwich at Lula is only a brunch special, so it is best to call ahead to make sure it's available.
2537 N. Kedzie Blvd.