TAMPA — “Have you ever had smoked crab?” Emmanuel Hagins asks, passing me a large bronzed crustacean, still smoldering from the grill.
We’re at Tampa Blue Crab & Seafood, which sells all manner of ocean delights. But it’s the blue crabs that are the biggest draw.
Hagins shows me how to pick it apart, first breaking it in two before carefully prying off a piece to expose the backfin, one of the sweetest and most coveted parts of the crab.
I pop it into my mouth and savor the moment: It tastes smoky, as expected. But it also carries a distinctly sweet and buttery flavor, and beneath it all, the unmistakable taste of the sea. I wonder, if just for a minute, whether I’ve ever tasted something so delicious in my life.
But wait, there’s more: bright orange crabs, spicy with Old Bay seasoning, and buttery garlic crabs, slick and swimming in a golden sheen. There’s deep-fried crab — patted down with corn flour, seasoned and tossed into the fryer before getting doused in a fiery and tangy buffalo sauce that makes my lips tingle.
A woman next to me picks up a large aluminum tray filled with boiled crabs sidling potatoes, plump gulf shrimp, golden ears of corn and sausage links.
“I drive across town for this stuff,” she says with a knowing smile.
While Florida’s beloved stone crab is just a week away from making its annual debut on Oct. 15, the season for Florida’s other crab — blue crab — lasts all year.
From roadside shacks to seafood markets, there are plenty of places to find it. And while crab boils might evoke visions of Baltimore and the Eastern Seaboard, blue crabs — steamed, boiled or deviled — have a devout following in Tampa Bay.
READ MORE: How to buy, cook and eat blue crab
Florida’s extensive coastline is home to a robust blue crab population. (Louisiana still outranks the state for crab landings.) The crabs also thrive in freshwater, which promotes growth and provides a refuge for juvenile crabs as well as protection from predators and disease, according to statistics from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Fish and Wildlife Research Institute. Anyone with a recreational fishing license can catch crabs, and crabbers are allowed up to 10 gallons of whole crabs per day.
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For Hagins, who sources from roughly 30 local crabbers depending on the season, the crabs are a reliable — and constant — source of income. Together with his business partner Donald Rhomberg, he opened the Hillsborough Avenue seafood market in Jackson Heights in 2017.
The business acts both as a wholesaler for smaller seafood markets and restaurants around town, as well as a retailer for home cooks and people looking to pick up a quick lunch or seafood dinner to-go.
Hagins’ market serves a variety of seafood, from mullet and snapper to clams and oysters, but it’s the blue crab that’s consistently the bestseller, and his garlic crabs in particular have people driving in from all over. On weekend mornings, Hagins often has a line of customers out the door.
Though blue crabs are available year-round, they are most abundant from May to August. During the busy months, Hagins estimates he goes through roughly 300 to 400 bushels of crab a week — about 12,000 to 16,000 pounds.
Blue crab is considerably cheaper than stone crab. Hagins sells his blue crab for around $30 per dozen (about 4 to 5 pounds), while just 1 pound of medium stone crab claws can retail for around $30, depending on the season.
So, where else can you find blue crab? If you’ve driven across or near any waterways in the greater Tampa Bay area, you’ve probably seen signs advertising it. Local crabbers often set up roadside shops, selling directly out of the back of a pickup truck.
Key West Seafood Co. manager CJ Hnilica calls the stretch of 49th Street S in St. Petersburg “blue crab alley,” and driving down the thoroughfare dotted with crab shacks, seafood markets and restaurants, it’s easy to see why.
There are the standalone markets, like Key West Seafood Co. (which opened in May in the space formerly home to Save on Seafood), where live crabs are sold fresh or seasoned and steamed to-go. Then there are the market-restaurant hybrids like JB’s Seafood Market, where guests can order fresh seafood or pick up already boiled, steamed or fried seafood to take home.
Tiny takeout spots pepper the area, too, like Channels Seafood Market, often a one-person operation where crabs are sold by the dozen, boiled or steamed, piled high into plastic foam containers.
Many of the smaller businesses buy their catch directly from local crabbers, and larger operations work with multiple crabbers or crab wholesalers. Much of the local crab is caught around Crystal River, near Homosassa and Cedar Key.
Not all of the crab sold in Tampa Bay is local. After noticing how large the demand for blue crab was, Jeff Benjamin of JB’s Seafood Market says he took the matter into his own hands. He runs frequent trips to Louisiana with a refrigerated truck, often hauling back thousands of pounds of crab a couple times a month.
His business operates as both a market and takeout restaurant, but many customers opt to take the fresh, live crabs and cook them at home. The cooking method they choose varies, but is largely regional, Benjamin says.
“If they’re from the North, chances are they want it steamed," he says. "If they’re from Florida, Louisiana or anywhere in the South, they’re going to want it boiled.”
While local restaurants may have perfected the deviled crab, steamed and boiled blue crabs are a meal best enjoyed at home, in the company of others — maybe over some newspaper, next to a corn cob and a snappy sausage link.
Blue crab gets a tough rap for being overly labor intensive — too cumbersome a task with not enough of a reward. But for many, sitting around the table picking apart crab shells is part of a communal tradition, the time spent languishing over crabs and conversation not to be rushed.
Janaye Hall, who picks up her haul of blue crabs at Key West Seafood Co. every week, says that boils at her mother’s home are a family tradition years in the making. The recipe is simple, warm with Old Bay spice, and chock-full of smoked sausage, corn, shrimp and potatoes.
“We’ve been doing it forever," Hall says. “It’s good but it gets messy.”
Where to buy blue crab
Blue crab is sold across the Tampa Bay area. Here are some of the spots we visited.
Tampa Blue Crab & Seafood, 3113 E Hillsborough Ave., Tampa; (813) 512-7033
T N Crab Shack, 2120 E Sligh Ave., Tampa; (813) 237-2488
Key West Seafood Co., 1449 49th St. S, Gulfport; (727) 289-2019
JB’s Seafood Market, 1946 49th St. S, St. Petersburg (727) 202-6808
Channels Seafood Market, 640 49th St. S, St. Petersburg; (727) 642-6365
Krispy Krab, 3100 18th Ave. S, St. Petersburg; (727) 323-8100