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When you order barbecued crabs at Sartin's, the top shells and the messy innards are removed in the kitchen -- what's left are spicy, meaty crab bodies with two claws attached. I removed the claws from the one I'd grabbed, cracked the body into two halves and dropped them on my plate. The crunchy barbecue spices that coated the shell stuck to my fingers. I licked some off as an appetizer.
The crab pieces were still too hot to handle, but using paper towels as oven mitts, I gripped a half-body with both hands and snapped it. The shell broke open to reveal a nice chunk of steaming meat, bright white and freckled with crispy barbecue seasoning. I took a bite, burning my lips and tongue.
The rich marine flavor of the spicy crabmeat, slightly greasy from the deep fryer, was sensational. Barbecued crab is Maine lobster and drawn butter's roughneck cousin from Beaumont. Invented in the corner of Texas that borders Louisiana and the Gulf of Mexico, it tastes like a cross between barbecue and Cajun deep-fried seafood. People who don't even like crab love barbecued crab.
It was Sartin's Seafood restaurants that made barbecued crabs famous. The legendary Sartin's now has three locations, all of them family-owned: one in Nederland, one on Highway 90 in Beaumont and one across the street from NASA. Kelli Sartin, the daughter of the founders, opened the Clear Lake Sartin's near NASA after the old one in Beaumont was destroyed by Hurricane Rita. The owners of the other two are Kim Lynch and Emily Summers.
When asked how she's related to Kim and Emily, Kelli said, "In my family we put it this way, 'Every time my brother meets a nice girl, he gives her a restaurant.'" Then she mumbled something about some other words they might use instead of "nice girl."
I'd been hearing about Sartin's for decades, but I wanted the whole story of Texas barbecued crabs. So I asked Kelli if she could hook me up with a crabber who could take me out on his boat and explain the business. And that's how I met her Miller LiteĖloving brother, Charles Douglas Sartin Jr.
"You want a beer?" Doug Sartin asked me when I sat down in his johnboat. He was dressed in white shorts, a pink T-shirt and a tan gimme cap with a sailfish on it. He also wore a shark's-tooth necklace, a silver bracelet and a conspiratorial grin.
"Why not?" I said.
He fished me a Miller Lite out of an 18-pack in the ice chest and grabbed one for himself. I noticed there was a second 18-pack in the bottom of the cooler.
"Thirty-six beers? I thought this was just a three-hour tour," I joked.
"The other one's for my dad," Sartin said. "There isn't any place to buy beer in Sabine Pass anymore, so I always get some extra."
Sartin's parents' house, and most of the rest of Sabine Pass, was under eight feet of water when Rita's storm surge hit. The town was nearly wiped off the map. The little five-store shopping center that used to greet you as soon as you crossed the causeway looks like somebody smashed down squarely on top of it with an enormous cast-iron skillet. The high school is about the only building still standing. But the senior Sartins have no intention of moving.
Doug throttled up the little Evinrude 40 outboard as we cruised out of the canal that leads to Keith Lake, a large body of water just east of Port Arthur. Kelli had called Doug to see if he knew a crabber, and Doug gave me just two hours to meet him at a turn-off on the highway between Port Arthur and Sabine Pass. It was a 90-minute drive from my house in Houston. I had to drop everything to make it.
The route took me through the middle of a gasoline refinery and over a bridge that looks down on the barge traffic in the Intracoastal Waterway. This part of Texas is famous for its unsightly petroleum processing plants, but Hurricane Rita has given the landscape a weird postapocalyptic twist. In the overgrown rubble of hurricane-damaged industrial buildings along the banks of the Ship Channel, I saw gaudy roseate spoonbills, great blue herons and kingfishers perching. Nature was reclaiming the ruins.
At 10 a.m. I said I wanted to go crabbing. At 1 p.m., I was out on the water drinking beer with Doug Sartin. Be careful what you wish for, as they say. We both scanned the horizon as we entered the wide part of the lake, but there were no crab boats in sight yet. So we drank beer and talked.
"That was my parents in the truck," Doug said. When I first arrived, he was saying good-bye to a gray-haired couple in a big white pickup truck who waved at me as they sped off.