A cute waitress dropped off a plate of six barbecued crabs, hot out of the deep fryer. I picked one up and juggled it, trying not to burn my fingers. All that stood between me and a whole lot of luscious crabmeat was a little bit of hot shell. And I was hungry.
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 Liteloving 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.
"Don't let him drown you," the woman yelled as the back wheels of the truck sprayed gravel across the parking lot. Charles Douglas Sartin Sr. and Jeri Sartin founded Sartin's first location, in Sabine Pass.
"Too bad they took off; I would love to interview them," I said.
"They don't talk to the press anymore," he said. "They aren't good at talking."
Doug, on the other hand, spoke freely. In fact, he didn't seem to know when to shut up.
"I'm the crazy one in the family," he said. I asked him about his two former wives. His estranged wife, Emily, looks just like his ex-wife Kim, he said. People think they're sisters. Having seen a photo of Kim Lynch on her Web site, I said she was a good-looking woman.
Doug laughed and said he bought those titties -- and his second wife's, too -- four titties total. I reminded Doug that I was a reporter and we were on the record. He said he was just a commercial fisherman and he could say whatever he wanted.
Doug Sartin Jr. started not only the Beaumont and Nederland restaurants, which he ended up giving away, but also several other Sartin's locations -- all of which are gone now. There have been a total of 14 Sartin's over the years, counting the three that are still in business. But it wasn't Doug's partying that caused all the business failures. Hurricanes did most of the dirty work.
The first Sartin's opened in 1972. "My daddy was a pipe fitter at the Texaco refinery," said Doug. "He fished for crab and shrimp on the side." Doug Senior set up wife Jeri in a fish market on the dock at Sabine Pass. But Jeri, who grew up in a family that owned several restaurants, decided that she would rather sell cooked seafood. And anyway, there was nothing else to eat in Sabine Pass. So she started a little restaurant in front of the family's trailer with four tables inside and four outside, weather permitting. Things took off quickly.
As the business expanded, Jeri hired a fry cook who brought along a recipe for a dish called barbecued crabs. Barbecued crabs were invented at a restaurant called Granger's, which was popular in Sabine Pass in the '40s and '50s. It burned down in 1958.
The barbecued crab tradition was continued at a Port Arthur restaurant called Mama's in the '60s. These days, besides Sartin's, Stingaree Restaurant in Crystal Beach on the Bolivar Peninsula also specializes in barbecued crabs. They are also a summer special at Floyd's, Ragin' Cajun and a few other seafood restaurants.
Charles Douglas Sartin Sr. left his job at the refinery to devote more time to catching seafood for the restaurant. It has been reported that he actually didn't want to quit that job, but Jeri went down there and quit it for him. She told the foreman she needed her husband to catch more crabs.
The Cajun crabs you get in Louisiana are boiled whole in highly spiced water with corn and potatoes, just like crawfish. On the East Coast, Maryland-style crabs are sprinkled with Old Bay seasoning and then steamed. Both Cajun crabs and Maryland-style crabs come to the table whole -- the diner cracks the shell and cleans out the guts.
Texas barbecued crabs are much more civilized -- at least for the diner. The crab has its top shell and guts removed while it's still alive. It is then dipped into a barbecue spice blend called Alamo Zestful Seasoning (see "How to Cook a Barbecued Crab"), dropped into a deep fryer and brought to the table piping hot and crusted with caramelized barbecue spices.
All-you-can-eat barbecued crabs at Sartin's became a tradition for beach lovers from Beaumont, Port Arthur and Orange. Texas 87, the highway that used to run the length of the beach-lined Bolivar Peninsula, went right through Sabine Pass before it turned inland. Sandy, sunburned diners clad in their bathing suits stopped at Sartin's on the way home from the beach -- and it didn't matter much that barbecued crabs were messy to eat.
The original Sartin's became enormously successful. They added dining rooms several times, until the capacity of the restaurant eventually reached 500. On weekends, the lines were so long that the restaurant started setting out tubs of free beer for those who had to wait. Free beer remains a Sartin's family tradition. Kim Lynch sells beer for a penny when there's a line outside her door.
But the original Sartin's was open for only eight years before it developed a hurricane problem. In 1980, it was Hurricane Allen. In 1983, it was Alicia. The storms did some damage to the restaurant, but what devastated Sartin's business was the closure of Highway 87 between High Island and Sabine Pass. Beachgoers were forced to use other routes. The road was finally reopened in 1985, and Sartin's began to make a comeback.
Three years later, in 1988, Hurricane Gilbert's storm surge took out the road again. In 1989, after Hurricane Jerry hit the Texas coast, plans to repair the highway were abandoned. On most highway maps, Texas 87 between High Island and Sabine Pass looks just fine. But don't try to drive it. The road has been closed for 17 years now.
The senior Sartins relocated to the Eastex Freeway in Beaumont. Doug Sartin and his wife, Kim, opened a second location in Nederland. Doug lost the Nederland restaurant in his divorce. Then he and his second wife, Emily, opened the Highway 90 Sartin's in Beaumont a few years ago.
The Highway 90 and Nederland locations survived Rita, but the storm destroyed the Sartin's that had belonged to Doug's parents.
"Where did you go when Rita hit?" I asked Doug.
"Me and my buddy Ricky got 15 cases of beer and rode out the storm in China," Sartin said. China is a small rice-growing town 25 miles or so inland. "In four days, we drank all 15 cases," he said. "Then we went around giving away food to volunteers. We had 600 pounds of shrimp at the restaurant that was going to go bad anyway, so we cooked it all up and gave it away."
Ahead of us, the crab boat we were looking for was chugging along the horizon. "You ready for a beer?" Doug asked his buddy, crabber Craig Ray, as we pulled up alongside. Craig already had a tall boy going, but he took another one anyway, and Doug and I got ourselves fresh ones, too. Then we climbed on board and checked out the crabs.
Craig Ray is a burly bear with a crew cut and an anchor and ship's wheel tattooed on his enormous upper arm. The day I met him, he might have been intimidating, except that he was wearing shorts and goofy-looking white rubber boots and was grinning from ear to ear. In fact, he never stopped smiling the whole time I was on his crab boat.
His bright white 21-foot Carolina skiff is a shallow-draft design built on a flotation hull that draws a mere six inches of water. The day we went out, the deck was shaded by a piece of bright blue vinyl stretched across a metal frame. The deck was always wet, but the water that washed over it didn't have to be bailed; it drained out of several holes in the aft.
Ray has been crabbing for 27 years. He said that there is some stone crab fishing down in Galveston, but he fishes exclusively for blue crabs. The blue crab's scientific name, Callinectes sapidus, translates to "savory beautiful swimmer." It is the only crab species of any commercial significance in Texas.
Most of the crabbers on Keith Lake use smaller boats, Ray said. The big skiff has made his life easy. He steered the boat while his deckhand pulled up the traps, marked by colored plastic floats. The first trap held 14 crabs of various sizes.
"Is that normal?" I asked.
"If they all had that many crabs, I would be home already," Ray chuckled.
Strangely enough, Hurricane Rita has improved the fishing. "This is one of the best seasons I have ever seen," Ray said. "Hurricane Rita stirred things up. The oxygen level of the water is way up. And so is the salt. I've heard that those dead zones out in the Gulf of Mexico were all shook up. It sure cleaned this area out. There used to be an oyster reef in the middle of the lake that I couldn't get my boat over. It's gone now. The oysters are spread out all over. All the sand bars and debris were washed out, too. The crabs sure like it. I'm seeing more sponge crabs [egg-bearing females] than ever before."
Not that Ray was making a lot of money. The storm put the local restaurants that bought crabs out of business. It also closed down the distributors who needed electricity for refrigeration. There wasn't any reason to go crabbing for a while because there was no one buying. But the storm did wonders for the crabs themselves.
Ray also talked about the cycles of the crab season. The crabs hibernate under the mud when the water gets cold, he said. They get active when the water warms up, usually around April. That's when they spawn. The peak of crab season is from May to August. Then there's a second spawning season in August. If you parboil the crabs first and then freeze them carefully, you can stockpile them during the summer and use them when crabs are scarce in the winter, he said.
A light bulb went on over my head. The first time I visited Sartin's was in March, and I was disappointed. Half the crabs I got were disgustingly mushy. Evidently the restaurant serves frozen crabs in the winter.
Add crabs to a long list of foods whose seasonality Americans have lost track of. With tomatoes available year-round, only gardeners seem to remember that summer is tomato season. Everybody else gripes about how bad their sliced tomato salad tastes in January.
Seafood has seasons, too. Sure, you can get oysters on the half shell, crawfish and barbecued crab all year. But you'll enjoy them a lot more if you only order them in season. Oysters are sweet and plump in the winter, but tasteless and loaded with the Vibrio virus in the summer. The big tasty local crawfish are harvested in the spring. And crabs are at their peak in the summer.
As the traps came on board the skiff, we drank our beers watched. The crabs were dumped out of the traps and sorted according to size. If one measured less than five inches point to point (from the end of the spiky point that sticks out from one side of the crabs shell to the same point on the other side), then the crab went overboard. If the crab measured between five and six inches, it went into the wooden crate with the No. 2s.
A crab that measured over six inches went into the box with the rest of the prized No. 1s.
Most of these crabs will go to Massachusetts, where they sell for $60 a dozen, Ray said, admiring the largest ones. Here they sell for $15 a dozen. As a result, although lots of premium crabs are taken in Texas, few are eaten here. The way around this frustrating dilemma is simple: Do your own crabbing. Its pretty easy. You can catch all the crabs you want with a chicken neck, a string and a fishing net. Or you can get more sophisticated with an umbrella trap.
I told Ray I planned to go crabbing near East Beach on Galveston Island. He didnt think that was such a great idea. The best-tasting crabs come from brackish water, he said, picking up one of the biggest No. 1s. We call them sweetwater crabs. He turned the crab over and pointed to a fuzzy dark scum that stuck to the shell. You want to see this black rusty color on the bottom; thats the sign of a really sweet crab.
I always thought that was mud, I admitted, thinking about making barbecued crabs at home. I already had a fryer, and surely I could find some zestful seasoning.
So if I wanted to eat the ultimate barbecued crabs, I would start out by catching some No. 1 sweetwater crabs, I said.
Here, let me get a bucket, he said. Ill give you some of the best crabs youll ever eat. I wondered whether to take them. I was afraid theyd die before I could get them back to Houston, and I didnt want to ruin such awesome crabs.
Ill get them, Doug said, slipping Ray some folded bills. Well cook them at Emilys restaurant. So we headed back with a dozen No. 1 crabs in a bucket in the middle of Dougs little boat.
What a nice guy, I said. He sure smiles a lot. Yeah, he sure does, said Doug. He went on to tell me that hed seen Ray out there with crabs hanging all over him, and he didnt even notice. Then he offered me another beer for the road.
I turned down the third beer. But I was beginning to think I was in the wrong business.
Before accepting Dougs invitation to go crabbing, Id already made a date with his ex-wife, Kim Lynch. I was supposed to stop by her restaurant around three in the afternoon. But now things were getting complicated. Doug Sartin was carrying around that bucket of sweetwater No. 1s. What if he got pissed off and I missed out on the ultimate plate of barbecued crabs?
But as I was getting in my car, Doug told me hed promised Kim hed get me to her place at three. Then he gave me directions to the Sartin's in Nederland and said he'd give me a while to talk to her and then come by, and I could follow him over to Emily's place.
I was dumbfounded. Doug Sartin may not own any of his namesake restaurants, but he sure seems to know everything that goes on in them.
I ordered some crabs and sat down at a table with Kim Lynch. She was a big good-looking blond. I tried hard to look her in the eyes at all times.
"Doug and I are still friends," said Kim, who once cleared tables at the Sartin's in Sabine Pass. But she made clear that being married to a Sartin was no picnic.
"It's an interesting family," she said. "I could write a book."
"Well, Doug calls himself the crazy one in the family," I said with a shrug.
"The crazy spoiled one," she replied. Their parents made things too easy for Doug and his sister Kelli, according to Kim. Doug never stops partying. "His best friend says that being with Doug is like being held captive," she said. "But he doesn't have to go back to the real world, and you do."
I asked Kim what Hurricane Rita did to business.
"After the storm, I quit offering all-you-can-eat," she told me. "What a difference that made!" At first, there just weren't enough crabs, she explained. The supply has come back now, but the all-you-can-eat policy has not. When Sartin's first started serving all-you-can-eat crabs at the original restaurant in the '70s, you could buy a dozen crabs for $3, she told me. Today they cost anywhere from $8 to $15 a dozen.
"I called Emily and we talked about it. She isn't doing all-you-can-eat anymore either," Lynch said. "The problem is human nature. When they're all-you-can-eat, people just eat the easy parts and throw the rest of the crab away," she said. "We used to go through 200 dozen crabs a night. Now we're making more money selling 100 dozen."
Kelli Sartin's location near Clear Lake is the last one offering the all-you-can-eat option. "She's just getting started," Lynch said. "She has to do it for now." But Lynch is convinced that the days of all-you-can-eat barbecued crabs are coming to an end. And she isn't going to miss them.
"You want something to drink?" Doug Sartin asked me. We were in the kitchen of Emily Summers's Sartin's location on Highway 90 in Beaumont, cleaning our giant crabs. If I wanted to eat the ultimate barbecued crab, then I was going to have to work for it.
"Yeah, I'll take an iced tea," I said. Doug set down a Miller Lite on the work table in front of me.
"We call these iced teas here," he said with a laugh.
Cleaning the live crabs is the most difficult part of making barbecued crabs. If Doug hadn't shown me how to do it, I probably never would have figured it out.
First you have to plunge the crab into ice water to stun it enough so it stops fighting. Then, with the crab upright on a flat surface, you hold down a flipper on the bottom left side of the crab with your left thumb and then rip off the shell from left to right with your right hand. It takes considerable force to get it started. Then you clean out the exposed guts under running water.
When we were finished, we handed our crabs to the kitchen manager, a Vietnamese woman who's been with Sartin's since the early days in Sabine Pass. She would dip the crabs in the spice mix, drop them in the fryer and bring them to us when they were ready.
We waited in the dining room, where a few of Doug's friends had gathered. Emily Summers's Sartin's location is by far the most comfortable of the three. The dining room is furnished with wooden tables and lit naturally by large windows looking out on a tree-shaded patio.
The subject turned to Rita, and I told the group I was shocked by all the damage I'd seen driving around Beaumont and Port Arthur all day. You didn't hear anything about this devastation from the national media, I remarked.
"You guys must be pretty tired of seeing New Orleans and Katrina coverage on television," I said. The table suddenly went silent.
After a few seconds, somebody said, "You mean they had a hurricane in New Orleans, too?" And then everybody had a good laugh.
Then the ultimate plate of barbecued crabs arrived, and it was my turn to be silent for a while. There were six of them on the plate, and they were indeed the best I've ever eaten. I could barely believe the huge gobs of meat I was getting out of those sea monsters. The meat was sweeter than crabmeat usually tastes and very juicy. I sucked each body cavity clean and washed the spicy crabmeat down with one last beer.
Since I had just been to all three Sartin's locations, Doug's friends asked me what I thought.
I said it was a novelty to have a Sartin's in Houston, and Kelli seemed like quite a character.
"Kelli is a fruit loop," said Doug Sartin.
"That's the nicest thing I've ever heard Doug call his sister," said one of his friends, laughing. They were drinking Coronas now; I lost track of how many beers Doug drank in the few hours we were together, but it was more than six.
"Sartin's has a new image," I said. "There's three good-looking women running the restaurants now--"
"And one dumbass named Doug running around in the background," interrupted Doug Sartin.
It is indeed a bizarre situation. Doug Sartin is the only thing the owners of the three Sartin's restaurants have in common -- and not one of them wants him around.
Kelli, Kim and Emily aren't terribly fond of one another, either. Each Sartin's restaurant prints its own T-shirts, runs its own Web site and generally acts as if the other two don't exist. It all sounds kind of like a William Faulkner plot -- a proud family dynasty battered by booze, bad marriages and incessant hurricanes, but still hanging on.
Of course, none of the Sartin family melodrama matters much if you're hungry. In that case, you'll want to know that crabs are in season right now. And that the new generation of Sartin's Seafood Restaurants is serving bona fide Sabine Pass barbecued crabs -- and keeping an old Texas food tradition alive.
Where To Eat Barbecued Crabs
Sartin's Seafood (Houston)
18023 Upper Bay Road
Sartin's Seafood (Nederland)
3520 Nederland Avenue
Sartin's Seafood (Beaumont)
12647 Highway 90
Floyd's Cajun Seafood House (Webster)
20760 Gulf Freeway
Stingaree Restaurant (Crystal Beach)
1295 Stingaree Road
4302 Richmond Avenue
How To Cook Barbecued Crabs
Mail-order sources for Alamo Zestful Seasoning and an illustrated recipe for barbecued crabs can be found at www.blue-crab.org/bbqcrabs.html.
License To Crab
To fish for blue crabs in Texas waters, you'll need a Texas fishing license and the additional saltwater package. The whole thing goes for $33 at bait shops, sporting goods outlets and some grocery stores. The size limit on crabs is five inches from point to point, but there is no limit on how many you can catch.
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