It's the most wonderful time of year: Florida's stone crab season is here.
Starting Saturday, Oct. 15, the sweet-meat claws will be harvested and make their way to seafood markets and restaurants across South Florida and beyond.
"Right now, we're trying to get the whole world stone crabs," says Paul Cull, general manager of Delaware Chicken Farm & Seafood Market in Hollywood. "I'm not just talking about us. Joe's [Stone Crab Restaurant)] ships across the world. There's a lot of pent-up demand, and only so many traps. It makes the first few days crazy."
Although they can be expensive, stone crabs are a delicacy that are tasty, local and sustainable. Fishermen must throw crabs back after removing their claws, which regenerate, and they're not allowed to harvest females bearing eggs. Crabbers are encouraged to remove only one claw so that crabs have a better chance of surviving. Is it cruel and painful to the crab? Perhaps, but let's not get caught up in ethical dilemmas right now. I'm too busy dreaming sweet thoughts, and making mustard sauce.
Because traps can't be pulled from the water until daybreak Saturday, expect a limited supply this weekend. Some restaurants, such as Truluck's in Boca Raton, won't serve them until Sunday. Some places sell frozen remnants from last season in the first few days. It's best to ask to avoid those. Delaware store owner Doug Carter says he won't know prices or whether this year's supply is bountiful until fishermen start pulling up traps from the Gulf Coast, Florida Bay and around the Florida Keys.
So be prepared to pay through the nose (rhymes with Joe's, the century-old South Beach institution that turned the humble crustacean into a seafood sensation) until the initial crush subsides. Prices fluctuate during the seven-month season, which runs through May 15, with peak demand in the first week and around major holidays such as Christmas and New Year's Eve.
At local seafood markets last year, medium claws went for $12 to $20 a pound, large for $22 to $32 a pound, and jumbos and colossals went for $35 a pound and higher. Roadside vans and stands also pop up throughout the region, with lower prices because of lower overhead (unless you know them, buyer beware). At Joe's, I paid nearly $65 for an order of five large claws in February.
No wonder why writer Damon Runyon, a frequent visitor to Joe's last century, quipped that claws are sold "by the carat." He also wrote that stone crabs have shells "harder than a landlord's heart."
But the sweet, succulent white meat has been known to melt souls. Shelled claws are usually dipped in drawn butter or creamy, spicy mustard sauce and squirted with lime.
Are stone crabs worth it? I consider them a quintessential South Florida treat, a food that belongs to us and defines us as much as deep-dish pizza does for Chicago or hot wings do for Buffalo. Every year, I celebrate stone crab season's start by getting a couple of pounds and a bottle of Veuve Clicquot Champagne. Stone crabs' arrival are a happy symbol of survival, a way to say we have made it past the brutal humidity of summer and have almost made it through another hurricane season.
Cull has worked at Delaware since it began selling stone crabs in the 1970s, and he is amazed by how popular they have become. "It's all because of Joe's," he says.
He can't tell any difference in taste, sweetness or texture between smaller ones and colossals. He says large is the most popular size, but he prefers mediums because of the value.
"When I get a tray of mediums, they usually look pretty big by the time I get home," Cull says. "But colossal is a heckuva lot easier to eat."
WHERE TO GET STONE CRABS
When in season, stone crabs are widely available at seafood stores and supermarkets throughout South Florida. The claws are cooked soon after being harvested, then chilled and served cold. If you get them cracked at the store, it's best to eat them within 12 hours. If you buy them uncracked, they can be refrigerated and eaten within two days.
Here are a few notable restaurants serving stone crabs:
Joe's Stone Crab — 11 Washington Ave., Miami Beach, 305-673-0365. The grandaddy of them all, the holy shrine of stone crab. Unless you know the tricks of the trade with the maitre d's (a coy handshake after a meal), be prepared to wait a long time at the bar, or hit the takeout shop next door.
Triad Seafood Market and Cafe — 401 W. School Drive, Everglades City, 239-695-0722. You can't get any fresher than here, a dockside market where boats unload their catch. Lunch only. The market is open until 5 p.m.
Billy's Stone Crab — 400 N. Ocean Drive, Hollywood, 954-923-2300. On the Intracoastal, this is an upscale, old-school place to grab some claws if you don't feel like making the trek to Joe's.
Catfish Deweys — 4003 N Andrews Ave, Fort Lauderdale, 954-566-5333. An informal, family-friendly eatery that is popular with locals, Catfish Deweys features daily all-you-can-eat stone crab specials, with price varying by size.
Kelly's Landing — 305 SE 17th St, Fort Lauderdale, 954-760-7009. This cozy and crowded spot is well known for New England specialities, including fried Ipswich clams, chowder and lobster rolls. Kelly's offers a $20 Monday night stone crab special featuring a pound of medium claws and one side.
Riggins Crabhouse — 607 Ridge Road, Lantana, 561-586-3000. A venerable seafood restaurant near Interstate 95 that's best known for several varieties of Maryland blue crab, Riggins also carries stone crab throughout the season.
Trulucks — Mizner Park, 351 W. Plaza Real, Boca Raton, 561-391-0755, and Galleria Mall, 2584 E. Sunrise Blvd., Fort Lauderdale, 954-396-5656. This upscale national seafood chain offers all-you-can-eat stone crabs on Mondays. The Boca Raton and Fort Lauderdale locations offer mediums, with a soup or salad and side, for $79. Reservations are recommended on Mondays. Truluck's also has a Miami location at 777 Brickell Ave. Call 305-579-0035.