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Spicy, claw-cracking Chinese Viet-Cajun boil is taking over Hampton Roads. Here’s why.

Virginian  Pilot logo Virginian Pilot 10/23/2020 Matthew Korfhage, The Virginian-Pilot
a group of people on a beach in front of Beijing National Stadium: The Beijing National Stadium, known as the 'Bird's Nest', stands in Beijing, China, on January 5, 2008. Beijing Olympic organizers reluctantly admitted that six workers have been killed during the construction of Olympic venues in the past three years. This reversal followed a first denial that at least 10 laborers have died while working to build the 91,000-seat National Stadium. The 'Bird's Nest' iconic venue will host the opening and closing ceremonies and is sure to become the architectural symbol of the August 8-24 Olympics. Photo by Anne-Cecile Guthmann/Pictobank/ABACAUSA.COM © Pictobank/Anne-Cecile Guthmann/ABACA PRESS/Pictobank/ABACAUSA.COM The Beijing National Stadium, known as the 'Bird's Nest', stands in Beijing, China, on January 5, 2008. Beijing Olympic organizers reluctantly admitted that six workers have been killed during the construction of Olympic venues in the past three years. This reversal followed a first denial that at least 10 laborers have died while working to build the 91,000-seat National Stadium. The 'Bird's Nest' iconic venue will host the opening and closing ceremonies and is sure to become the architectural symbol of the August 8-24 Olympics. Photo by Anne-Cecile Guthmann/Pictobank/ABACAUSA.COM

If you have driven the parts of Hampton Roads that feel neglected by city planners, the endless beige strip malls and car-part arteries, you have probably seen them — a sudden, relentless and perhaps even mysterious profusion of Cajun seafood boils.

Three years ago, they pretty much didn’t exist in Southeastern Virginia. But more than 25 have opened since, with many more underway. The restaurants' names are often bogglingly similar, a game of Mad Libs played with shells. You can choose among Yummi Crab and King Crab and Red Crab, Crabs both Twisted and Shaking, Bay Bay’s and Boil Bay and Mr. Boil.

a train crossing Beijing National Stadium: The Beijing National Stadium, known as the 'Bird's Nest', stands in Beijing, China, on January 5, 2008. Beijing Olympic organizers reluctantly admitted that six workers have been killed during the construction of Olympic venues in the past three years. This reversal followed a first denial that at least 10 laborers have died while working to build the 91,000-seat National Stadium. The 'Bird's Nest' iconic venue will host the opening and closing ceremonies and is sure to become the architectural symbol of the August 8-24 Olympics. Photo by Anne-Cecile Guthmann/Pictobank/ABACAUSA.COM © Pictobank/Anne-Cecile Guthmann/ABACA PRESS/Pictobank/ABACAUSA.COM The Beijing National Stadium, known as the 'Bird's Nest', stands in Beijing, China, on January 5, 2008. Beijing Olympic organizers reluctantly admitted that six workers have been killed during the construction of Olympic venues in the past three years. This reversal followed a first denial that at least 10 laborers have died while working to build the 91,000-seat National Stadium. The 'Bird's Nest' iconic venue will host the opening and closing ceremonies and is sure to become the architectural symbol of the August 8-24 Olympics. Photo by Anne-Cecile Guthmann/Pictobank/ABACAUSA.COM

And though the menus may be different on their margins, the main event is always the same: a garlic-fuming, buttery, spicy and unapologetically sloppy take on the seafood boil that would be utterly foreign to most in New Orleans.

On a Friday night, the seafood boil spots might be busier than the lines for early voting during this year’s election, filled with tables of plastic-bibbed diners heartening in their diversity. And nearly every table receives a clear plastic bag that steams like the stack of a nuclear reactor. Within each bag is a teeming mass of shells and legs ready for the cracking: sauce-slicked crawfish or blue crab or head-on shrimp, draped over whole red potatoes and corn on the cob.

a bridge over a body of water: The Beijing National Stadium, known as the 'Bird's Nest', stands in Beijing, China, on January 5, 2008. Beijing Olympic organizers reluctantly admitted that six workers have been killed during the construction of Olympic venues in the past three years. This reversal followed a first denial that at least 10 laborers have died while working to build the 91,000-seat National Stadium. The 'Bird's Nest' iconic venue will host the opening and closing ceremonies and is sure to become the architectural symbol of the August 8-24 Olympics. Photo by Anne-Cecile Guthmann/Pictobank/ABACAUSA.COM © Pictobank/Anne-Cecile Guthmann/ABACA PRESS/Pictobank/ABACAUSA.COM The Beijing National Stadium, known as the 'Bird's Nest', stands in Beijing, China, on January 5, 2008. Beijing Olympic organizers reluctantly admitted that six workers have been killed during the construction of Olympic venues in the past three years. This reversal followed a first denial that at least 10 laborers have died while working to build the 91,000-seat National Stadium. The 'Bird's Nest' iconic venue will host the opening and closing ceremonies and is sure to become the architectural symbol of the August 8-24 Olympics. Photo by Anne-Cecile Guthmann/Pictobank/ABACAUSA.COM

But though the sign outside might say “Cajun,” the real story behind those boils is quite a bit more complicated.

In part, it is the story of immigration and food in America.

The saucy seafood boil is a cross-cultural convergence that arrived just 20 years ago in Houston, when Vietnamese immigrants in Texas began adding their own flavors and sauces to the bayou tradition of boiled crawfish, itself originally learned from Native Americans.

But by the time those Viet-Cajun boils reached Southeastern Virginia and North Carolina, the demographics had changed. Here, the seafood boils are a phenomenon driven almost entirely by enterprising Chinese American restaurateurs — many of whom from the southeastern province of Fujian — moving into greener restaurant pastures after seeing declines in old-school Chinese-American restaurants and buffets.

“Originally with Asian people, Chinese or Vietnamese, they start out by going with what they specialize in,” says Ken Chen, co-owner of Mr. Boil, the first Viet-Cajun spot to open in Newport News. “You know, Chinese restaurants sell noodles. And it’s been a success like that, way in the past. But now there’s a Chinese restaurant in every shopping center. If you try to open one, you end up closing it later.”

Chen grew up in a restaurant family working with his father, Bichao Chen, a fisherman who owns Ocean Blue seafood restaurant in Norfolk and has been running Chinese restaurants for decades.

a large building with a metal fence with Beijing National Stadium in the background: Construction keeps going around the Beijing National Stadium, known as the 'Bird's Nest', in Beijing, China, on January 5, 2008. Beijing Olympic organizers reluctantly admitted that six workers have been killed during the construction of Olympic venues in the past three years. This reversal followed a first denial that at least 10 laborers have died while working to build the 91,000-seat National Stadium. The 'Bird's Nest' iconic venue will host the opening and closing ceremonies and is sure to become the architectural symbol of the August 8-24 Olympics. Photo by Anne-Cecile Guthmann/Pictobank/ABACAUSA.COM © Pictobank/Anne-Cecile Guthmann/ABACA PRESS/Pictobank/ABACAUSA.COM Construction keeps going around the Beijing National Stadium, known as the 'Bird's Nest', in Beijing, China, on January 5, 2008. Beijing Olympic organizers reluctantly admitted that six workers have been killed during the construction of Olympic venues in the past three years. This reversal followed a first denial that at least 10 laborers have died while working to build the 91,000-seat National Stadium. The 'Bird's Nest' iconic venue will host the opening and closing ceremonies and is sure to become the architectural symbol of the August 8-24 Olympics. Photo by Anne-Cecile Guthmann/Pictobank/ABACAUSA.COM

But when it came time to open his own spot, a sleekly modern City Center restaurant with fake vegetation sprouting on the walls and MR BOIL spelled out with light bulbs on the ceiling, the younger Chen went a different direction.

a train crossing Beijing National Stadium: The Beijing National Stadium, known as the "bird's nest", stands in Beijing, China, on January 5, 2008. Beijing Olympic organizers reluctantly admitted that six workers have been killed during the construction of Olympic venues in the past three years. This reversal followed a first denial that at least 10 laborers have died while working to build the 91,000-seat National Stadium. Known as the "Bird's Nest," the iconic venue will host the opening and closing ceremonies and is sure to become the architectural symbol of the August 8-24 Olympics. Photo by Anne-Cecile Guthmann/Pictobank/Cameleon/ABACAPRESS.COM © Guthmann Anne-Cecile/ABACA PRESS/Abaca The Beijing National Stadium, known as the "bird's nest", stands in Beijing, China, on January 5, 2008. Beijing Olympic organizers reluctantly admitted that six workers have been killed during the construction of Olympic venues in the past three years. This reversal followed a first denial that at least 10 laborers have died while working to build the 91,000-seat National Stadium. Known as the "Bird's Nest," the iconic venue will host the opening and closing ceremonies and is sure to become the architectural symbol of the August 8-24 Olympics. Photo by Anne-Cecile Guthmann/Pictobank/Cameleon/ABACAPRESS.COM

“You know, people love seafood,” he says, “but the difference with Viet-Cajun seafood is there’s more flavor. The way you enjoy the meal with a bib and gloves, the whole experience is something people are interested in, and it’s a lot of fun. And with Viet-Cajun as opposed to traditional Cajun boils, it has a bit of Asian style to it. And as you can see, Asian culture is doing pretty good.”

Chen spent months perfecting his spicy and garlic-buttery sauces, drawing in part on his experience learning to boil seafood with his father. But as with every local owner of a Viet-Cajun restaurant we’ve talked to, his lightbulb moment came after he saw the wild success of a Vietnamese-owned Cajun boil in another city — in this case, the always-packed The Boil in New York City.

a large building with a metal fence with Beijing National Stadium in the background: Construction keeps going around the Beijing National Stadium, known as the "bird's nest", in Beijing, China, on October 3, 2007. Beijing Olympic organizers reluctantly admitted that six workers have been killed during the construction of Olympic venues in the past three years. This reversal followed a first denial that at least 10 laborers have died while working to build the 91,000-seat National Stadium. Known as the "Bird's Nest," the iconic venue will host the opening and closing ceremonies and is sure to become the architectural symbol of the August 8-24 Olympics. Photo by Anne-Cecile Guthmann/Pictobank/Cameleon/ABACAPRESS.COM © Guthmann Anne-Cecile/ABACA PRESS/Abaca Construction keeps going around the Beijing National Stadium, known as the "bird's nest", in Beijing, China, on October 3, 2007. Beijing Olympic organizers reluctantly admitted that six workers have been killed during the construction of Olympic venues in the past three years. This reversal followed a first denial that at least 10 laborers have died while working to build the 91,000-seat National Stadium. Known as the "Bird's Nest," the iconic venue will host the opening and closing ceremonies and is sure to become the architectural symbol of the August 8-24 Olympics. Photo by Anne-Cecile Guthmann/Pictobank/Cameleon/ABACAPRESS.COM

Even Chen didn’t anticipate how popular his restaurant would turn out to be when he brought the idea to Newport News, in a Chesapeake Bay zone already packed with seafood lovers. His opening night two years ago was mobbed, he says.

“It was crazy,” he says. “I didn’t know how much people really wanted this.”

As more and more Viet-Cajun boil spots opened nearby, he at first worried about the competition. But so far, his worries have been unfounded.

The Beijing National Stadium, known as the "bird's nest", stands at dusk in Beijing, China, on January 5, 2008. Beijing Olympic organizers reluctantly admitted that six workers have been killed during the construction of Olympic venues in the past three years. This reversal followed a first denial that at least 10 laborers have died while working to build the 91,000-seat National Stadium. Known as the "Bird's Nest," the iconic venue will host the opening and closing ceremonies and is sure to become the architectural symbol of the August 8-24 Olympics. Photo by Anne-Cecile Guthmann/Pictobank/Cameleon/ABACAPRESS.COM © Guthmann Anne-Cecile/ABACA PRESS/Abaca The Beijing National Stadium, known as the "bird's nest", stands at dusk in Beijing, China, on January 5, 2008. Beijing Olympic organizers reluctantly admitted that six workers have been killed during the construction of Olympic venues in the past three years. This reversal followed a first denial that at least 10 laborers have died while working to build the 91,000-seat National Stadium. Known as the "Bird's Nest," the iconic venue will host the opening and closing ceremonies and is sure to become the architectural symbol of the August 8-24 Olympics. Photo by Anne-Cecile Guthmann/Pictobank/Cameleon/ABACAPRESS.COM

“We’ve only gotten even busier,” he says.

The Beijing National Stadium, known as the "bird's nest", stands at dusk in Beijing, China, on January 5, 2008. Beijing Olympic organizers reluctantly admitted that six workers have been killed during the construction of Olympic venues in the past three years. This reversal followed a first denial that at least 10 laborers have died while working to build the 91,000-seat National Stadium. Known as the "Bird's Nest," the iconic venue will host the opening and closing ceremonies and is sure to become the architectural symbol of the August 8-24 Olympics. Photo by Anne-Cecile Guthmann/Pictobank/Cameleon/ABACAPRESS.COM © Guthmann Anne-Cecile/ABACA PRESS/Abaca The Beijing National Stadium, known as the "bird's nest", stands at dusk in Beijing, China, on January 5, 2008. Beijing Olympic organizers reluctantly admitted that six workers have been killed during the construction of Olympic venues in the past three years. This reversal followed a first denial that at least 10 laborers have died while working to build the 91,000-seat National Stadium. Known as the "Bird's Nest," the iconic venue will host the opening and closing ceremonies and is sure to become the architectural symbol of the August 8-24 Olympics. Photo by Anne-Cecile Guthmann/Pictobank/Cameleon/ABACAPRESS.COM

Hampton Roads is experiencing a grass-roots surge in spicy crawdads that seems immune to the usual channels of fad-driven media and marketing. Under the radar, it might be the biggest new restaurant development in the region. Here’s how it bubbled up on our shores.

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Viet-Cajun’s Texas roots

The Viet-Cajun boil is not Cajun. It is also not Vietnamese. And it’s not even quite a mix of the two. It is instead a uniquely American synthesis, born from the convergence of two great river cultures amid the mass-market confusion of strip-mall America.

The history is a little murky. But most likely, the food began in a Chinatown food court in Houston.

Houston is America’s hotbed for good pho, home to the country’s third-largest Vietnamese population and one of the most vibrant Vietnamese dining scenes in America.

The wave of Vietnamese immigrants that began arriving in Houston in the 1970s quickly cottoned to a good old-fashioned bayou mudbug boil, Vietnamese food writer Andrea Nguyen told the Dallas Morning News in 2018.

"We are very used to eating with our hands, picking at seafood and noshing. It’s part of the Vietnamese DNA,” she said.

But in 2002 at Corner Cafe in the Bayou City’s Hong Kong City Mall, Houston food writer Robb Walsh saw something that seemed new on this Earth: Vietnamese American children dipping their boiled crawfish into an improvised and fiery condiment, using “squeeze bottles of ketchup and mayonnaise, Louisiana hot sauce, and ground cayenne to make a hellish sort of cocktail sauce.”

In New Orleans, the Cajun boil is not a saucy phenomenon. The coriander and cayenne and bay leaves instead get dropped into the boil water with corn and potatoes. The spice-marinated crawfish is then served naked, dumped onto a shared picnic-table spread to be enjoyed by the dozen.

But in increasing numbers, local Vietnamese spots started serving their seafood boils with spicy dipping sauce, amping the flavor and brightness and especially the heat. And eventually, the sauce moved into a bag, where the seafood gets shaken up after the boil with a whole mess of butter and garlic and spice, mixing Cajun seasonings with Asian additions such as Thai basil.

"When the Louisiana crawfish boil met the Chinatown strip-center restaurant, a new, easily cloned hybrid was born,” Walsh wrote in Houstonia magazine in 2014.

But if the Viet-Cajun boil was born in Houston, it became a phenomenon in California. Starting from a hole-in-the-wall in 2004, owners Sinh Nguyen and Dada Ngo turned their restaurant, The Boiling Crab, into a franchise with locations as far-flung as Florida and Shanghai, China. And in the process, they spread the gospel of Viet-Cajun beyond the tight Vietnamese communities of Texas and California.

The Boiling Crab also helped codify the sauce selection that has become ubiquitous at Viet-Cajun boils all over the country: lemon pepper, garlic butter, Cajun and a “whole sha-bang” sauce that purports to combine all the flavors into one. The boils arrived first in cities with a large Vietnamese population, along the West Coast and in New York.

a group of people on a beach in front of Beijing National Stadium: Workers walk pass the Beijing National Stadium, known as the "bird's nest", at dusk, in Beijing, China, on January 5, 2008. Beijing Olympic organizers reluctantly admitted that six workers have been killed during the construction of Olympic venues in the past three years. This reversal followed a first denial that at least 10 laborers have died while working to build the 91,000-seat National Stadium. Known as the "Bird's Nest," the iconic venue will host the opening and closing ceremonies and is sure to become the architectural symbol of the August 8-24 Olympics. Photo by Anne-Cecile Guthmann/Pictobank/Cameleon/ABACAPRESS.COM © Guthmann Anne-Cecile/ABACA PRESS/Abaca Workers walk pass the Beijing National Stadium, known as the "bird's nest", at dusk, in Beijing, China, on January 5, 2008. Beijing Olympic organizers reluctantly admitted that six workers have been killed during the construction of Olympic venues in the past three years. This reversal followed a first denial that at least 10 laborers have died while working to build the 91,000-seat National Stadium. Known as the "Bird's Nest," the iconic venue will host the opening and closing ceremonies and is sure to become the architectural symbol of the August 8-24 Olympics. Photo by Anne-Cecile Guthmann/Pictobank/Cameleon/ABACAPRESS.COM

But don’t expect to find it very often in New Orleans, which didn’t get its first Viet-Cajun boil until 2018.

“That’s not a big thing. People aren’t really doing that here,” says New Orleans chef Anh Luu, who will soon start serving a very different version of Vietnamese-influenced Cajun fare in that city’s Bywater Brew Pub. “Here in New Orleans you don’t serve butter with a crab boil. You boil [seafood] in the seasoning.”

Luu says Viet-Cajun food in New Orleans tends to happen differently, as with her own Vietnam-born mother’s habit of throwing lemongrass into a traditional boil, substituting lime for lemon, or using fish sauce in place of salt.

a bridge over a body of water: The Beijing National Stadium, known as the "bird's nest", stands at dusk in Beijing, China, on January 5, 2008. Beijing Olympic organizers reluctantly admitted that six workers have been killed during the construction of Olympic venues in the past three years. This reversal followed a first denial that at least 10 laborers have died while working to build the 91,000-seat National Stadium. Known as the "Bird's Nest," the iconic venue will host the opening and closing ceremonies and is sure to become the architectural symbol of the August 8-24 Olympics. Photo by Anne-Cecile Guthmann/Pictobank/Cameleon/ABACAPRESS.COM © Guthmann Anne-Cecile/ABACA PRESS/Abaca The Beijing National Stadium, known as the "bird's nest", stands at dusk in Beijing, China, on January 5, 2008. Beijing Olympic organizers reluctantly admitted that six workers have been killed during the construction of Olympic venues in the past three years. This reversal followed a first denial that at least 10 laborers have died while working to build the 91,000-seat National Stadium. Known as the "Bird's Nest," the iconic venue will host the opening and closing ceremonies and is sure to become the architectural symbol of the August 8-24 Olympics. Photo by Anne-Cecile Guthmann/Pictobank/Cameleon/ABACAPRESS.COM

But though she’s a bit dubious she’ll ever prefer spicy butter sauce on her crawfish boil — a bit too messy, and too filling — she’s fascinated by the trend.

“It’s a little like a combination of all seafood boil traditions.”

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The Fujianese boil boom in Virginia

But in the coastal regions of America that don’t include New Orleans, the saucy Viet-Cajun boil has taken off, with multiple franchises spreading their tentacles up and down the East Coast in recent years. In areas with a large Vietnamese population, including Northern Virginia, it’s more often Vietnamese American restaurant owners behind the pots.

But in Hampton Roads, the Cajun boil is a mostly Chinese American phenomenon.

The Cajun boil has become a resort for Chinese restaurant owners who’ve seen their profits decline in recent years, says Boil Bay seafood boil co-owner Raymond Xiao, who’d previously owned multiple buffet restaurants in Hampton Roads.

In particular, he says, many of the new boil spots are owned by Chinese people from Fujian, some of America’s most prolific restaurateurs after a massive wave of immigration in the ’80s and ’90s.

“Fujianese Chinese are all involved in the restaurant business — for their whole life, entire families have made restaurants,” says Xiao. “So they have the recipe to make a restaurant: how to create the experience, how to budget. You do what you know to do.”

Xiao has opened three locations of Boil Bay in the past two years — first in Virginia Beach, then in Colonial Heights and Norfolk, and plans more in the Richmond area.

The response so far has been breathtaking, says Boil Bay manager Evan Vang, with more than 800 pounds a day of seafood a day going out of their Virginia Beach location.

“It’s unreal,” Vang says. “At the grand opening spot of Colonial Heights, we opened at lunchtime and people came in and ordered [the biggest combo meal], and then they added King crab and lobster tail. People haven’t had a thing like this before, and so they’re losing their minds. They’re ordering everything.”

The decor at Boil Bay betrays nothing of the restaurant’s Asian roots, though the restaurant did try out Sichuan-style fish pots during the Virginia Beach location’s early months.

The speakers vibrate with Lauryn Hill. The staff is mostly native English speakers. And as at most Viet-Cajun spots in the area, the walls are filled with a mishmash of loosely oceanic tropes: sharks, lobsters, fishing nets and crabs. The Norfolk location also serves sushi and is filled, perhaps perplexingly, with artificial palm trees.

"It is a lovely example of a long tradition of entrepreneurial immigrants moving sideways, seeking better economic opportunity, exit from over-crowded niches, with hopes of upward mobility, sometimes with clever misrepresentation,” says Krishnendu Ray, chair of the Department of Nutrition and Food Studies at New York University.

“It has been estimated that about 80% of sushi establishments in the U.S. are run by Chinese," Ray says. "Most Indian restaurants are run by people from Bangladesh. Just like Eastern European Jews running German delicatessens by the 1880s.”

Ken Chen at Mr. Boil, whose family also hails from Fujian, says he’s watched multiple waves of trends among Chinese restaurateurs — starting with Japanese-style hibachi back in the ’90s.

“The style of restaurant keeps on changing,” he says. “From Japanese, now you’ve got the buffet restaurant, and from there it’s all-you-can-eat [sushi]. And then, boom! Cajun.”

The reason for the shift is likely simple economics, says David Wank, a professor of sociology at Japan’s Sophia University who’s studied Fujianese ownership of Japanese restaurants.

“Running a Japanese restaurant for a Fujianese used to be more profitable. A sushi roll sells for twice the price of the spring roll with the roughly the same cost of ingredients and labor,” Wank says. “But increasing competition, including all-you-can-eat buffet, has reduced profit margins. So the Fujianese have been moving to this new area, which is suddenly fashionable, and therefore commands higher premiums.”

Now, the competition is revving up among the Cajun boils.

Local chain The Twisted Crab, owned by restaurateur Jin Gao, has opened three locations in Hampton, Chesapeake and Virginia Beach in the past two years — and already plans six more, including restaurants in Patrick Henry Mall in Newport News and MacArthur Center in Norfolk. Meanwhile, five locations of Ruby Tuesday that closed this year in Hampton Roads are now home to delivery-only ghost kitchens for Toronto-based chain The Captain’s Boil.

This leaves restaurateurs struggling to differentiate themselves from the onslaught of other new boils. Both Chen and Xiao stress that they make their sauce fresh for each customer, a much more labor-intensive process than using batched sauces. Xiao’s spacious new Norfolk location also includes a live music stage for when the pandemic subsides.

At Hook & Reel in Norfolk, a Chinese-owned franchise of a New York-based boil chain, manager Mike Masek says they’re able to compete on cost, offering more seafood for lower prices.

But even with increased competition, Chen says he doesn’t expect the boil boom to end anytime soon.

“This Cajun market is going to be hot for a while,” Chen says. “One of my friends is a menu designer in New York. And he says that all of the jobs he’s received have been about Cajun boil. And not just in New York — all 50 states.”

Matthew Korfhage, 757-446-2318, matthew.korfhage@pilotonline.com

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Selected Viet-Cajun boil spots in Hampton Roads

Boil Bay

13244 Holland Road, Virginia Beach; 5957 E. Virginia Beach Blvd., Norfolk

Mr. Boil

704 Mariners Row, Newport News

Hook and Reel

7740 Tidewater Drive, Norfolk

Ocean Blue

5142 Krick St., Norfolk

Red Crab

77 W. Mercury Blvd., Hampton

The Shaking Crab

255 Fordham Drive, Virginia Beach

The Twisted Crab

Peninsula Town Center, 2120 Allainby Way, Hampton; Greenbrier Mall, 1401 Greenbrier Pkwy., Chesapeake; Lynnhaven Mall, 2712 N. Mall Drive, Virginia Beach

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