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Where? Saito Japanese Cafe & Bar, 2120 2nd Ave.

What does $13 get you? Not what I wanted: a killer mantis shrimp.

Recommended? No.

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$13 dollars at Saito

The killer mantis shrimp stalks a Belltown sushi restaurant.

saito.JPG

Where? Saito Japanese Cafe & Bar, 2120 2nd Ave.

What does $13 get you? Not what I wanted: a killer mantis shrimp.

Recommended? No.

It's not often you get a chance to consume something that, if improperly prepared, could punch its way out of your stomach. Yet there it was on Saito's menu: shako, a.k.a. the fearsome mantis shrimp.

The diminutive sea dweller, which averages a few inches long and looks like a cross between a lobster and a centipede, is what aquarium enthusiasts call a "thumb splitter." When hunting or just plain unamused, they can cover 30 feet in a second and inflict blows commensurate with the impact of a .22 caliber bullet. I didn't know people liked to eat mantis shrimp; I was more aware of their hooliganism. In 1998, for instance, a four-inch mantis dubbed "Tyson" pounded through quarter-inch-thick glass at England's Sea Life Centre. Three years later, San Franciscans were entranced by two shrimp that were terrorizing the Monterey Bay Aquarium. (Money quote from the aquarium keeper: "He clobbered me.") This is an image of a larger mantis shrimp, taken by a Malaysian photographer on Trek Earth:

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When one of these critters attacks, it can look like a street fighter holding up his victim with one hand while pounding the stuffing out of him with the other. (Check out the second-to-last video here.) Needless to say, aquarium-care Web sites warn against getting close to the little beasties when extracting them from tanks. Perhaps because they're penned by hobbyists with split thumbs, removal tactics evince the diabolical genius of Wile E. Coyote—for example, using scissors rigged with string to decapitate the shrimp or jabbing their rocky hidey holes with sharp needles, a "very satisfying technique if there is some degree of hatred directed towards the shrimp for some reason."

Putting a mantis shrimp inside my mouth would give me bragging rights on eGullet. It would also involve the fantastical possibility of the fresh shrimp jumping off its bed of rice, giving me a black eye, and scurrying off to entertain reporters about how I screamed like its wife and how it wanted to eat my children. Bragging rights won out. I signaled the waitress to put in my order.

It wasn't to be. Shako is seasonal, although my waitress couldn't tell me what that season was. An authoritative source—some stranger's blog—says it's "April to Summer." So instead I ordered what you see above, a lowly Japanese cockle ($5.25) plus miso soup ($2.25) and salad ($3.75). This is what arrived on my plate:

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In every bite, this leathery, wet strip of muscle reminded me of how it wasn't a mantis shrimp. It wasn't cool, wasn't deadly, didn't have an Internet fan base that put its snuff videos to metal music. The first Google hit for "Japanese cockle" links to an article in a microbiological journal about enteroviruses. To eat a cockle is to understand the life of a cockle—a cold, marginal existence, marked by the pounding of surf and the knock-knock-are-you-there? of hungry crabs. The cockle is an intransigent, tough thing, and that's the impression it makes in your mouth. It's also nearly flavorless. At one point I thought I detected the faintest whiff of something like flowers, but it was probably my still-excited mind playing tricks.

Saito's menu is dotted with uncommon-in-the-states sushi cuts: halfbeak, a syringe-shaped fish; sand borer, which resembles an eel; ebodai, or butterfish. I'll come back when the mantis shrimp does.

 
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