Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Tasting some of Tampa's History: the devil crab

Recently, myself and a group of eight local epicurean adventurers headed out around Tampa in search of devil crabs. Tampa was the birthplace of this snack in the early 1920s — a croquette made from seasoned, cooked crab meat which is breaded, fried and traditionally eaten with hot sauce. We tasted this indigenous dish from several different Tampa establishments known for making their own from scratch, comparing their differences and tasting some of Tampa's food history.

First things first, while I may be a native Tampanian, I learned on this day that the proper title of this edible delight is "devil crab", not "deviled crab".

The Columbia's devil crab
  • The Columbia's devil crab

Our group met up in Ybor and headed to the Columbia Restaurant who had the smallest version of the devil crab. The appetizer included six mini croquettes filled with blue crab and seasoned with paprika, garlic, and onion. The small bites had nice-sized chunks of garlic and onion in them, and were served with the restaurant’s own label of hot sauce. In my opinion, the hot sauce wasn’t really needed, as the seasoning in them was sufficient.

The next stop, Carmine’s, was my standard setting out on the crawl. Having lived in Ybor, I often ate their crabs and was very interested in comparing them to other versions. Carmine’s has been using the same devil crab recipe since sometime around 1929, the bartender told us. Their version is about the size of a softball with a crispy shell. The dish was stuffed with blue crab, and chunks of onion and green pepper were visible. While delicious, the crab overall lacked seasoning. Carmine’s serves their devil crab with Texas Pete hot sauce — a good accompaniment to add some much needed heat.
Carmine's devil crab
  • Carmine's devil crab

The stop at La Tropicana Cafe had been negated from the crawl, as we had been informed they would be closed. However, much to our delight, they were open. On our way to Brocato’s, we grabbed a few devil crabs to go and took them with us. It was interesting to have both the La Tropicana and Brocato devil crabs on one table, as they were very different from one another.

La Tropicana’s devil crab was very bready. It had a crisp crust which when opened exposed an inner thick layer of dough. The breading was seasoned wonderfully, although I felt that the crab meat got somewhat lost when compared with Brocato’s version. La Tropicana had my favorite hot sauce accompaniment of the crawl, Jalapeno Sauce by Dixie Crystal.

Brocatos' (top) and La Tropicana (bottom)
  • Brocatos' (top) and La Tropicana (bottom)

Brocato’s Sandwich Shop was insanely busy (which is not unusual), but after a short wait for devil crabs, we sat them next to La Tropicana’s and compared the two versions. Brocato’s had a thin crust of what appeared to be panko crumbs. Breaking into the crab, we discovered a plethora of fresh crab meat. As we all leaned over the table in excitement taking pictures, regular customers came over to brag that Brocato’s had the best devil crabs and Cuban sandwiches anywhere. I did not have a Cuban sandwich, but I concur with the regulars on the devil crab. It was wonderful: the meat tasted incredibly fresh, and the seasoning was perfect and not under- or over-whelming the meat. At first glance, I thought the crust may not be crispy enough for my taste, but the panko crumb crust was crispy, even without the darker color of other devil crabs.

We had heard rumors that many restaurants around Tampa sell Michelle Faedo's devil crabs. In fact, I called each stop to confirm that they made their own devil crabs prior to adding them to our crawl. With the knowledge that she sells devil crabs to many local restaurants, we had hoped to try them straight from the source but ,were very disappointed when we arrived at the shop to find that it had closed an hour early. Oh well, on to the next stop!

Cacciatore Brother's market had great prices on wine, cheese, and other delights, but their devil crabs were microwaved to order. They were mostly bread and the crab meat was very suspicious. One might even suspect that the devil crab was in fact a devil "krab". This was by far the least favorite devil crab of the entire group. Even loads of Texas Pete hot sauce did not help. In all fairness, though, this is a market selling prepared foods and not a restaurant that prepares them fresh.

Alessi's devil crab
  • Alessi's devil crab

Alessi's Bakery's devil crab was arguably in the top three in most of our opinions. The crust was thin, dark and crispy, and when you cracked it open, the interior held well-seasoned fresh blue crab. Alessi's is well known for its scachatta, but frankly, I prefer their devil crabs.

I’ve long loved Castellano & Pizzo Market for its homemade mozzarella and sausages, but I had never had its devil crab. The crab was very different from any of the others, in that it had a definite Italian seasonings in it. The exterior was crispy, but the devil crab, as a whole, was very doughy. It came with a "salsa" packet, but would have tasted much better with a homemade marinara sauce. We were also harshly scolded by a man behind the counter for taking pictures, “No picturas in da stora!” leading someone (unnamed) to title this the 'crab with the most attitude'.

Seabreeze devil crab
  • Seabreeze devil crab

After the official crawl ended at Castellano & Pizzo, those remaining headed to the Robert and Helen Richards’ home in Palmetto, the former owners of the Seabreeze Restaurant on the 22nd Street Causeway. A devil crab crawl through Tampa just would not be complete without sampling the devil crab from the makers that, legend has it, put the dish on the map in the 1920s. While the restaurant closed in 2002, the Richards family continues making the restaurant’s famous devil crabs from their home which they sell by the dozen.

Although we didn’t get to enjoy fresh deviled crabs with them this day, Helen sent us home with frozen devil crabs, and invited us back for dinner and more stories.

I brought the crabs home and fried one up the following day. It was tasty and crisp, and both the shell and the interior were seasoned wonderfully. But having been frozen, it lacked the fresh crab flavor of the Brocato devil crab. I will withhold deciding between Brocato’s and Seabreeze's as my favorite until I return to the Richards’ home and Robert fries up a fresh batch.

Everyone had their favorite versions of devil crab from the various eateries, leaving it difficult to name one the ultimate "best". All in all, it was simply an enjoyable of sampling some of Tampa's unique food history.

  • Columbia Restaurant: 2025 E 7th Ave, Tampa. 813-248-3000

  • Carmine's: 1802 E 7th Ave., Tampa. 813-248-3834

  • La Tropicana Cafe: 1822 E 7th Ave, Tampa. 813-247-4040

  • Brocato's: 5021 E Columbus Dr., Tampa. 813-248-9977

  • Michelle Faedo's Sandwich Shop: 3609 N 15th St., Tampa. 813-247-3020

  • Cacciatore Brothers: 5610 Hanley Rd., Tampa. 813-884-8013

  • Alessi's Bakery: 2909 W Cypress St., Tampa. 813-879-4544

  • Castellano & Pizzo Market: 4200 Henderson Blvd., Tampa. 813-289-5275

  • Seabreeze Devil Crabs: 813-623-6250

Brocato's Sandwich Shop on Urbanspoon

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