Shell Games: The Ins and Outs of Eating Crab in South Florida
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Fenton Stanley Ridgeway III hunches over a stack of Maryland-style blue crabs at Riggins Crabhouse in Lantana. He's dismantling the crabs like a machine: His thick fingers look impossibly nimble as they dance across the shells, plucking out meat from the narrow clusters and delivering it to his mouth with controlled speed.
To see him at work is profound. Ridgeway — father of my close childhood friend Fenton the Fourth — grew up in Maryland eating blue crabs and is an expert at opening them. We came to Riggins Crabhouse, a 22-year-old restaurant and seafood market near I-95, because it's supposedly the closest to actual Maryland-style crabs around.
I ask him to show me how he makes eating the hard-shelled crabs look so easy, so he gives me a demonstration. He scoops up a fresh steamed blue crab, its shell now bright red and caked in Old Bay seasoning, and turns it over. "This is the apron," he says, pointing to a T-shaped bit of shell wedged into the crab's belly. He slips a paring knife — one he brought from home — underneath the apron and peels it back. With a flick of his wrist, the top of the shell snaps off, exposing the crab's multilayer interior.
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The inside of the crab looks like a Jackson Pollock painting — a mess of yellow, gray, and brown with no discernible meat in sight. Again, Ridgeway makes it seem easy. "These gray-looking fingers are the lungs. Don't eat those. They'll make you sick." He plucks the lungs out and discards them in a wooden bowl. "The yellow stuff is the mustard. Some people like to eat that. I don't."
I try the mustard, also known as the crab's hepatopancreas, a digestive gland. It's deep, briny, and pungent. I love it straight away.
From there, Ridgeway uses his paring knife to cut the crab in half down the middle, revealing two walled sections of shell called clusters. Using the knife, he cuts off each of the crab's small legs and sucks any meat hanging off the ends. The large legs with a claw he puts aside. "I eat those all at the end," he says. Those plump fingers shoot back to life, scavenging lumps of sweet meat from each of the cluster's papery hollows. I try to echo his motions, but the wimpy strands I retrieve have flecks of shell inside.
I guess I just need more practice.
Ridgeway has had plenty. In the car ride to Riggins, he told me countless stories about his crabbing days in and around Chesapeake Bay and how his father, also an expert at eating crabs, used to leverage his skills in bets. "My dad could open crabs faster than anyone," he says. "There was this one time that his friends complained about how hard it is to eat crabs, so he bet them if he could keep enough meat in front of them so they would never have to stop eating, they would have to pick up the tab. He won that bet pretty easily."
Ridgeway also schools me on the ins and outs of finding good crabs. There's a way to tell if a crab has been recooked. "The meat tastes burnt if they're not steamed to order," he explains. Blue crabs should be steamed in beer — not boiled — to keep the meat from going mushy. And the trademark Old Bay seasoning he loves so much (a timeless blend of spices including celery salt, cloves, and paprika) must be liberally applied before the crabs are cooked. That, he says, is one of the reasons he despises a Fort Lauderdale crab institution, Rustic Inn. "They give you a shaker to put the Old Bay on instead of letting it cook into the crab," he gripes.
Ridgeway also recommends not using the trademark wooden mallets they pass out at crab shacks throughout South Florida. The mallets just end up getting bits of shell in the meat. Still, all I could hear during my meal at Riggins was the pounding of those mallets. All around the restaurant, folks tear into Maryland-style and garlic crabs by the dozen, hammering away on tables covered with butcher's paper. The rest of the dim, aged-looking crab house fits the theme. It's covered with nautical knickknacks and memorabilia from the Chesapeake. Even the name — Riggins — suggests a connection to Washington Redskins running back and Hall of Famer John Riggins, an inveterate Maryland hero (despite having no tie to the restaurant itself).
Unfortunately, the semiauthentic vibe takes on a pretty unappealing light in the old restaurant. The tables, small and cramped, are not ideal for eating food this messy in such close proximity to your dining companions. A bright, blue mural of Florida ocean life on one wall is mirrored by actual fish tanks mounted inside picture frames on another. Every last one of those surfaces — including the brown carpeting — sports a sheen of spattered crab guts.
Nothing we ate that night — aside from the crab — changes the poor impression we got from that dirty dining room. Maryland-style crab cakes ($10) look like they were plopped onto a plate with ice cream scoopers and shuffled under a broiler. Not long enough, though — the goopy mayonnaise Riggins used as a binder is runny and barely warm. A half-dozen conch fritters ($6) we ordered were almost devoid of conch. Likewise, a cup of Baltimore crab stew ($3) has only the smallest shreds of crab meat inside. Fenton's wife, Loraine, decides it's an egregious use of the name. "The crab stew I remember had big hunks of crab meat in it," she says with a huff.
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.
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.
I guess no matter how much you like eating them, there's just no perfect crab experience here in South Florida (unless, of course, it's prefaced by the word stone). For now, this Florida boy will live vicariously through the Maryland-born stories of people like Ridgeway. To be honest, just watching him work is all the crab enjoyment I need.
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