The aroma of roasted garlic filled the center's great hall. Hundreds of patrons sat at long rows of paper-covered tables, anticipating the arrival of the crab cioppino.
Sharing carafes of red and white table wine and plates of buttery garlic bread, they donned plastic bibs decorated with an image of the large crustacean and the word "CRAB" in stark letters. Some brought their own accoutrements: metal crab-crackers, chafing dishes atop Sterno stands filled with melted butter, bags bulging with sliced lemons and hot sauce.
When the steaming bowls arrived, the crowd applauded. The Portuguese Society's annual all-you-can-eat crab feast had begun.
The annual I.F.E.S crab feed has endured and grown in popularity for nearly 50 years. The organization holds monthly feeds starting in December during the Dungeness crab season. The feeds can attract as many as 1,600 people a night, devouring as much as 10,000 pounds of crab, society past president Fernando Rosa said.
Composed mostly of Portuguese immigrants and their descendants from the Azores Islands, the I.F.E.S. — Irmandade da Festa do Espirito Santo — is a society dedicated to a festival honoring the Holy Spirit, which is a common celebration in the Azores, Rosa said. The crab feasts are fundraisers for the society, which started in Mountain View in 1926.
Many patrons have come for decades. Mark Novak, a Silicon Valley engineer, has attended for at least 10 years. He arrived this year with his grown son, Kevin.
No two crab cioppinos are the same; the recipe changes along with the cooks, he said. But two things remain consistent: the crab will always be served hot and steaming in a sauce; and it will also be served cracked and cold with a side of lemon and hollandaise sauce, he said.
"It's a lot like an indoor church picnic," Novak said, ladling cupfuls of crab onto a picnic plate. He poured the sauce into a paper cup. He enjoys drinking it straight up, he said.
Jerry Cunha, Mary Taylor and Tish Picchetti have also attended for many years. Taylor said she prefers the crab cold with lemon.
"What brings you back here is the crab — and the company," she said.
Dungeness crab enthusiasts Roger Schindewolf and Patty Robinson often bring as many as 30 friends. They came dressed for the occasion in tie-dyed "Peace, Love and Crabs" T-shirts from the Joe's Crab Shack chain.
"I've been coming here for more than 30 years and I enjoy the 'crabaraderie,'" Schindewolf said.
Cioppino, a dish of uncertain origin, is said to have originated in San Francisco and was made by Portuguese and Italian fishermen in North Beach. It is a stew of many kinds of fish and seafood.
But the Portuguese Society's version has just crab and various flavorings: onion, celery, parsley, lemon juice, tomato paste, white wine, red pepper, spices and water. The sauce is poured over the cooked crab at the last minute so the meat is not discolored, Rosa said.
Many West Coasters believe that among crabs, the Dungeness caught off Pacific shores is supreme.
Although the tried-and-true method of serving Dungeness is to boil or steam and serve warm or cold with butter, lemon or mayonnaise, the crab is equally delicious steamed and tossed in olive oil with lemon juice and salt or with cracked black pepper, said Jarad Gallagher, the new executive chef at Chez TJ in Mountain View.
Henry Hiatt, manager at The Fish Market in Palo Alto, said his restaurant serves cooked crab smothered in garlic, butter and shallots and then roasted for about five to 10 minutes in the oven until the whole thing is caramelized.
Gallagher advises purchasing 1.5- to 2-pound Dungeness crabs because the larger ones are a bit stringy. He boils the crabs and plunges them in ice water until chilled through, then removes the meat in large chunks, reserving the shells and the "cheese" in the head. He makes a veloute sauce for dipping by creating a stock, to which he adds onion, whole coriander, garlic, chili peppers and chicken broth. He drains the shells and adds the reserved cheese and a 1/2 cup of arborio rice to thicken. When the crab is tender, he purees the mixture in a blender and serves it with the crab, brioche croutons, sweet potato cubes, pickled cucumbers, fresh dill and daikon.
"It's really delicious that way," he said.
The I.F.E.S crab cioppino dinners for 2013 are on Saturdays, Jan. 26, Feb. 23 and March 23, with seatings from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. and 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. The dinner costs $50 per adult and $25 per child up to age 12, and it comes with all of the crab, wine, soda, coffee, bread and salad one can eat. Desserts are available for a separate small fee. Information on tickets is available at www.ifessociety.com/page/page/5533996.htm.