Q: Why is it that restaurants from low-end to elegant leave the tails on cooked shrimp? It's a pain to take them off in an entree!
—Mike Maddaloni, Chicago
A: Tails left on cooked shrimp are meant to be decorative. That they drive you crazy at the same time is simply coincidence, although it may not seem so during the holiday season when practically every meal or party is awash in tail-on shrimp.
Like paper frills festooning a crown rib roast, the tails do give a finished shrimp dish an extra dimension visually. I also think leaving the tail on makes the shrimp appear bigger — important given how much most shrimp dishes cost in restaurants. Without the tail, one might see the shrimp less as the imposing, luxe creature described on the menu and more like an overpriced, previously frozen pink squiggle bobbing in some over-salty sauce.
Good luck getting restaurants, or holiday hosts for that matter, to take off that tail. The good news is removing the tail is a snap.
Usually, you have the tail attached to a segment of shell in which there's a bite of shrimp left. If you are in a situation where you can use your fingers, pick up the shrimp and tug it gently from the shell. Or, you can put the shrimp in your mouth, start chomping down on that segment of tail shell and suck the meat out of the tail. Put the empty shell segment and tail piece back on your plate.
When using a knife and fork, I like to cut straight across the shell segment where it connects to the tail. Then I spear the remaining piece of shrimp peeking out of the shell with my fork and ease it out. That last nugget usually comes easily. If not, and I'm either really hungry or paid so much that I want every last shrimp smidge, I'll use my knife to cut open the shell segment and pull out the meat.
You can always leave that last bit of shrimp in the shell along with the tail if you are feeling particularly flush, full or lazy; there are no rules requiring you to eat it.