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If there's no redemption to be found in the appetizers or relic-slow service, at least Riggins crabs are well-done. The restaurant sources crabs from the Gulf and East Coast of Florida and keeps them alive until cooking. At $48 per dozen for medium-sized crabs, an order is best shared by two people. They're served unceremoniously on a metal tray to your table, and you're given mallets, bowls, and bibs.
Following Ridgeway's instruction, I use my knife in conjunction with the mallet as a sort of crude hammer and chisel. That method works better than simply pounding away, especially with the sharp, spiky claws. Every once in a while, I manage to excavate a perfect piece of claw meat. Those pearly pieces were sweet, delicate, and slightly zesty from the Old Bay.
The victory, however, is brief. I spend most of the night being poked and stabbed, working on a nifty collection of tiny cuts on each hand. When I'm finished, I'm literally covered in crab goo. Wouldn't you know it? Riggins' bathroom was out of soap too.
4331 Ravenswood Road
Fort Lauderdale, FL 33312
Region: Fort Lauderdale
Riggins Crabhouse, 607 Ridge Road, Lantana. Open for lunch and dinner noon to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, noon to 10:30 p.m. Friday, 2 to 10:30 p.m. Saturday, and 2 to 9:30 p.m. Sunday. Call 561-586-3000, or click here.
Rustic Inn, 4331 Ravenswood Road, Fort Lauderdale. Open for lunch and dinner 11:30 a.m. to 10:45 p.m. Monday through Saturday and noon to 9 p.m. Sunday. Call 954-584-1637, or click here.
Ridgeway worked his way through nine crabs to my three. By the look on his face, it's clear he wanted to stay longer, extracting sweet meat and dunking it in a little cup of vinegar (his favorite crab condiment). But the rest of us were ready to leave. It had begun to feel as though the cliché about crabs' being too much work was true.
A couple of days later, I decide to give crabs another try, this time at Rustic Inn. Despite Ridgeway's assurances that Rustic Inn "wasn't authentic," the Fort Lauderdale crab house must be doing something right: After 55 years in business, the cavernous restaurant is packed daily with folks looking to release their aggression on the backs of blue crabs. The building is so big and so popular, in fact, that it would be far more accurate to call it a crab compound, complete with signs pointing diners in the direction of the hostess stand and a detached voice booming commands to servers over a restaurantwide loudspeaker.
Still, Rustic Inn's look and feel seems more appropriate for eating seafood than Riggins'. The restaurant sits on a canal overlooking a busy boat yard. It's draped in thick, seafaring rope and signs reminiscent of Old Florida dive bars and seafood joints. The tables, both inside and out on the covered dock, are the folding metal variety, and the chairs are too. They're unilaterally covered in white butcher paper that's kept from blowing away by wooden mallets. My favorite part, though, is the sinks shaped like wooden barrels scattered throughout the restaurant. Each had plenty of paper towels and, thankfully, soap.
My fiancée, Danielle, and I watch boats go by from our table on the old dock as we drink cold Coronas with lime — a scene for crab-eating much more familiar to this Florida boy's heart. To start, we sample a cup of Islamorada conch chowder ($1.99). The soup, spicy and rich with tomatoes and bits of ground conch, tastes more like meaty chili than seafood stew. A huge piece of blackened mahi we try ($20) is perfectly cooked and very moist.
What Rustic Inn is best-known for is garlic crab — steamed blue, golden, or Dungeness crabs steamed and then sautéed in garlic-infused oil. Since the restaurant didn't have enough blue crab for individual batches that day, I settled on a crab sampler that included blue crab clusters plus three other types ($31.99). (To be sure that they've got plenty of blue crabs in stock, it's best to call before you visit.)
The sampler is loaded: Alaskan queen crab, served without the garlic oil, has papery-thin shells and firm meat that's easy to extract. The downside: Next to the other fresh crabs, the prefrozen red flesh tastes watery. Blue crab clusters are served shelled with the legs on — somehow, I find the sweet meat easier to get at this time. Still, the bigger, firmer golden crabs are my favorite. Caught in waters from Florida to the Carolinas, these huge crabs sport a mammoth claw that's teeming with luxurious meat. The shells, though, are even more dangerous than the blue crabs — in my haste to open a leg, I cut my thumb pretty badly. It seems crabs fight back.
Eating crabs on the dock and sipping cold beer from a sweaty bottle makes dinner at the Rustic Inn appealing in a boozy, South Florida way. I don't even mind how messy it is — I refuse a bib like a manly idiot and end up drenching my shirt in crab juice. But there is one big problem — everything served here is oily as hell. A styrofoam cup of potatoes that comes with my platter sits in a pool of bright-orange oil. The blue crabs, Dungeness, and goldens are literally dripping with the same orange fat. If you dare use your mallet on one, it's like popping a bag of melted Crisco on the tabletop. Most tellingly, the people at the table behind us (like most people sitting at the dock) throw their crab shells to the fish hanging out in the waters below; as the crab hits the water, ripples of oil stain the surface. "Those fish must have high cholesterol," Danielle laughs.