Every year, as temperatures rise, crabs begin molting — shedding their hard outer shell. So begins soft-shell crab season. This year, the sweet, meaty, slightly crunchy crop has arrived a little earlier than expected, exciting chefs and customers.

“Traditionally, we first see soft-shells in May, so it’s a really weird surprise," said Joncarl Lachman of Noord in East Passyunk. "But they’ve been exceptionally large and flavorful.”

Noord is one of more than a dozen restaurants featuring soft-shell-centric dishes among their specials, whether deep-fried in buttermilk batter, sandwiched inside a croissant, or grilled. No matter the preparation, no picking or cracking will be required: All parts of a cooked soft-shell crab — from legs to claw — are edible and delicious. Use a fork and knife, or better yet, your hands, to dig in.

Take note: Call ahead to check that a restaurant has soft-shells on the menu, as there are occasional gaps in availability throughout the season (spring through early fall). Prices for these specials vary with the market.

East of Broad

Noord

Noord is going full-on spring, serving two buttermilk-battered, deep-fried crabs over a bed of peppery watercress, fresh gooseberries, and a gooseberry mostarda. Nestled in between, find smoky mashed potatoes laced with baccalà. Once summer returns, keep an eye out for Noord’s go-to for soft-shells: watermelon-feta-mint salad.

1046 Tasker St., 267-909-9704, noordphilly.com

Fond

You can have it all with Fond’s soft-shell brunch special, a lightly battered fried crab tucked into a Machine Shop Boulangerie croissant, along with sliced avocado and tomato, crispy bacon, and a smear of Caesar dressing. For dinner, the Passyunk Square restaurant serves crabs two to a plate, sautéed in butter and lemon, paired with a rotating side, like asparagus risotto or fregola with tomato-fennel broth.

1537 S. 11th St., 215-551-5000, fondphilly.com

Hungry Pigeon

Hungry Pigeon in Queen Village crisps up buttermilk-and-cornmeal-coated soft-shells in the deep-fryer and finishes them with house-made Old Bay seasoning and a dollop of tartar sauce. Each order comes with a stew of Green Meadow Farm crowder peas braised with broad beans, bacon, and tomatoes. Later in the season, swap soft-shells for the meat in the cafe’s egg-and-cheese sandwich.

743 S. Fourth St., 215-278-2736, hungrypigeon.com

Serpico

A few seasonal ingredients join forces at Serpico for its soft-shell special, starring a deep-fried crab dredged in rice flour and paired with fresh peas, shaved rhubarb, and a spring onion-strewn crab gravy. Finishing off the South Street special is gribiche — a French sauce made with eggs, herbs, and capers.

604 South St., 215-925-3001, serpicoonsouth.com

Bud & Marilyn’s

Bud & Marilyn’s in Washington Square West puts its soft-shells in the skillet with garlic butter and lemon. Each plate comes with two jumbo crabs, roasted sunchokes, blistered tomatoes, and mixed greens.

1234 Locust St., 215-546-2220, budandmarilyns.com

West of Broad

Chris’ Jazz Cafe

Center City’s jazz cafe serves up soft-shells three ways for lunch or dinner: grilled, served over sautéed ramps with a Meyer lemon drizzle; as a hoagie, with beer-battered crab, lettuce, tomato, red onions, oregano, and oil and vinegar between a seeded baguette; and in a double dose, with a tempura-battered soft-shell atop crab-potato salad.

1421 Sansom St., 215-568-3131, chrisjazzcafe.com

Misconduct Tavern

Swing by Center City’s Misconduct Tavern at lunch or dinner for a beer and a fried soft-shell crab sandwich. The sports bar’s take on the classic features sourdough bread, paprika-spiced mayo, and sliced avocado, with a choice of salad or fries.

1511 Locust St., 215-732-5797, misconducttavern.com

Zama

A Japanese take on soft-shells, Zama in Rittenhouse Square presents pan-fried crabs with a citrusy yuzu-soy butter by the single or double order (dinner only). All crabs are served with sautéed shiitake, chanterelle, cremini, and shimeji mushrooms.

128 S. 19th St., 215-568-1027, zamaphilly.com

Pumpkin

Soon to hit Pumpkin’s dinner menu: buttermilk-soaked, semolina-battered soft-shells over pea purée. Fresh herbs, peas, and local spring lettuces drizzled with a buttermilk dressing will accompany the dish at this Graduate Hospital BYOB.

1713 South St., 215-545-4448, pumpkinphilly.com

Soft-shell crabcake sandwich at Tipsy Bistro, 3131 Walnut St.
Michael Klein / Staff
Soft-shell crabcake sandwich at Tipsy Bistro, 3131 Walnut St.

Tipsy Bistro

Make it a sandwich or a full meal at West Philly’s Tipsy Bistro, which stuffs an Old Bay-spiced soft-shell in between brioche, along with lettuce, tomato, bacon, and an ancho-chili aioli. The large(r) plate comes with lightly battered crabs, Parmesan-seasoned potatoes, and sautéed broccoli.

3131 Walnut St., 215-921-8551, tipsybistro.com

The Common

Next week, sautéed soft-shells (two per order) are headed to University City newcomer the Common. Chef Patrick Feury pairs them with serrano chilies, Thai basil, and local ramps.

In the suburbs

Enoteca Tredici

In Bryn Mawr, find soft-shells dredged with squid-ink tempura batter at Enoteca Tredici. Two to an order, the eye-catching entree is served with blanched asparagus and cipollini onion and potato puree.

915 W. Lancaster Ave., 484-381-0268, tredicibm.com

Nunzio Ristorante Rustico

Collingwood’s Nunzio Ristorante Rustico pan-fries soft-shells with garlic, fresh basil and parsley, capers, cherry tomatoes, lemon, and a splash of white wine. Order one crab as an appetizer or two for dinner; both are served over angel hair pasta for lunch and dinner.

706 Haddon Ave., Collingswood, 856-858-9840, nunzios.net

Fuji Restaurant

Fuji, Haddonfield’s longtime Japanese standard, offers soft-shells two ways: deep-fried or sautéed as an appetizer or main course. The starter features a single crab with stir-fried shiitake mushrooms. The entree consists of two soft-shells with rice and mixed vegetables in garlic sauce.

116 Kings Hwy. E., Haddonfield, 856-354-8200, fujijapanesehaddonfield.com