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The sun is getting ready to plunge into East Galveston Bay. The slanting light casts a pink glow on the platter of barbecued crabs in front of me. I suck a tangy claw and admire the still life with shellfish. It's Saturday evening at Stingaree Restaurant on the Bolivar Peninsula, and the place is hopping. About ten minutes ago, a bunch of people filed outside to take seats on the open deck, where they are now drinking beer and facing west. I am sitting in the air-conditioned dining room behind them, looking over their shoulders at the sunset, and methodically disassembling blue crabs. I have eaten four so far, and it looks like there's about six left.
Port Bolivar, TX 77650
Region: Outside Houston
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Barbecued shrimp: $9.95
Bosco's barbecued crabs, Vieno's fried crabs, or seasoned boiled crabs (regular order): $10.95; (large order): $13.95; (all you can eat): $18.95
Charbroiled red snapper fillet: $13.95
"Lobsters, schmobsters," read the beginning of an e-mail I received recently, complaining that critiquing lobsters in Houston is an obnoxious Yankee thing to do. So this week I am seeking atonement by feasting on the native variety of crustaceans: Gulf blue crabs.
Under the heading "Crabs, Crabs, Crabs," Stingaree's menu offers "Bosco's barbecued crabs, Vieno's fried crabs, and seasoned boiled crabs." No mixing is allowed with regular or large orders, but you can try them all if you get the all-you-can-eat special, which of course I did. The crustaceans are all native Gulf Coast blue crabs, and they range in size from small to enormous. Barbecued crabs are a tradition around here, and I've always wanted to try them.
My roommate at the University of Texas, the late Phil Born, grew up in Port Arthur, and he used to talk fondly about eating barbecued crabs. He was a very slow eater, a trait that he claimed was essential to great crab connoisseurs. "My grandfather and his friends would sit and eat crabs for two hours straight," Phil used to tell me. When Phil and his family went to the beach, they went to Bolivar, like most Port Arthur and Beaumont residents. It was here in the crab shacks along the East Texas Gulf Coast that barbecued crabs became famous.
Stingaree Restaurant is on the second story of the Stingaree Marina in the little town of Crystal Beach. There is a white shack at the end of the marina under a sign that reads, "Bait Camp." The Intracoastal Waterway runs so close beside the restaurant that you could lob your crab shells into it from the deck. Giant barges glide by every 15 minutes or so, reminding you that this part of the Gulf Coast is, first and foremost, industrial.
This is the first time I've been to Bolivar, and I am utterly charmed by the funky grace of it all. Verdant vacant lots sprinkled artfully with rusted autos and propane tanks line the main route, Highway 87, between the settlements. And each hamlet is a guileless variation on the Gulf Coast resort format -- a restaurant, a liquor store, a bar, some whitewashed cottages, a couple of mobile homes and a bait camp. The cynicism of high-dollar resort projects has yet to overtake the native patterns of development here.
"This is what Galveston Island used to be like," my companion sighs as we drive up the peninsula. She spent a lot of her childhood on Galveston; in fact, she uses the screen name "islandgirl" on-line. Before West Beach was dominated by condo complexes with let's-pretend-we're-somewhere-else names like Inverness by the Sea and Bahia Mar, it looked a lot like this, she says. Maybe we should have Bolivar set aside as a cultural reserve, the last redoubt of that rare bird, Gulf Coast innocence.
From the front deck of the ferryboat Robert C. Lanier, we watch in awe as an oil tanker passes. The ferry has yielded the right-of-way to the enormous vessel, which towers over us like a ten-story building passing by. A lone dolphin leaps dramatically in front of the ship, cavorting in its bow's wake to the delight of the ferry passengers.
To get to Bolivar from Houston, you drive down to Galveston and catch the ferry from the east end of the island. It's a short ride, and it crosses some of the most active shipping lanes in the Gulf. There's nothing like looking at an oil tanker from the waterline to help you appreciate the massive scope of this region's maritime industry. There's also a nice breeze on the water, even on the hottest days. Bring along a bag of potato chips if you want to feed the seagulls off the rear deck.
We left Houston at around five, which put us in Galveston by six and Bolivar by six-thirty. I hadn't thought about catching the sunset at Stingaree, but the timing worked out perfectly.
My second and third plates of crabs are inexplicably delivered at the same time. There are four boiled crabs on one and four deep-fried crabs on the other. But I am only halfway through my first plate of barbecued crabs.
I am not very fond of the boiled ones, which taste watery and bland after the barbecued variety. I am up in the air about the fried ones. Barbecued crabs were made famous by a place in Sabine Pass called Granger's; later, Sartin's took over the tradition. The recipe called for blue crabs to be cleaned and broken in half, dipped into a spicy seasoning mix and then deep-fried. Crabs prepared this way can be spectacular, or if the grease is not at the right temperature or a little too old, they can be pretty foul. Stingaree barbecued crabs are first boiled, then dipped into seasoning and broiled. They are far superior to boiled or deep-fried crabs, in my estimation.
Dinner at Stingaree begins with a bowl of creamy coleslaw, which is served as a starter course. They go through quite a bit of the stuff, so it's always nice and crunchy. We also had an order of delicious but incendiary New Orleans-style barbecued shrimp. The peel-and-eat shrimp are tender, but you have to resist the impulse to lick your fingers in order to avoid overdosing on the spicy coating.
Islandgirl orders the charbroiled red snapper fillet, a stunningly simple piece of fresh fish that arrives a little black on the edges and extremely moist in the middle. She finishes her snapper while I'm still on my third crab. She starts to get bored watching me eat, so she excuses herself somewhere around crab no. 7 and goes outside to watch the sunset with the crew on the deck. This is fine with me. While she sits there eyeballing me, I feel pressured to hurry up and eat.
The slow pace is why Gulf Coast crab shacks and restaurants that specialize in barbecued crabs are becoming rare, Stingaree's owner George Vratis tells me on the phone a week later. "Crab shacks are going the way of the drive-in theater," he says. "Because neither one is a very good way to utilize the space." Modern corporations look at restaurant tables as real estate. You make money by renting them out, and the shorter the stay, the more money you can make. An all-you-can-eat crab customer is going to squat at a table for an average of 90 minutes, Vratis explains. A 50-minute turnover is the average in a dinner house. Which is why the chain version of the concept, Joe's Crab Shack, gives you only four crabs for $10.95, he says. Stingaree customers hang around a long time.
"But I don't care. As long as you enjoy my crabs, you can stay all night," says Vratis. Some of his favorite customers are old-time crab lovers who will sit at a table for hours and eat 20 or 30 crabs.
I wish Phil could have been here to cheer me on. I know I could have made the big leagues. But islandgirl needs to get back to Houston, and I am getting a little bored smashing crabs by myself. Besides, my thumb is bleeding from where I accidentally stabbed it with one of the needle-sharp little points under a claw. (This maintains a personal record: I have never eaten crabs without bleeding.) So I reluctantly call it quits after consuming 14 in an hour and 20 minutes.
Not very impressive, really. Next time, I promise to do better.
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