TAMPA — Consider the crab chilau. Sometimes called crab (or cangrejo) enchilau or enchilado, it’s one of those old-school Spanish and Cuban dishes that came out of early 20th century Ybor City but seems to have been lost to the passage of time.
I’ve had a few readers write to me about their memories of the dish — a Sunday supper feast at their grandmother’s house, maybe, or a festive special occasion meal to celebrate the bounty of blue crabs plucked from the waters of Tampa Bay. But as those crabs became more scarce over the years, so apparently did this recipe.
When I heard it was on the menu at a new restaurant opening in Ybor City, my interest was piqued.
West Ybor Barterhouse, which opened in fall 2019, sits just a block off busy E 7th Avenue — an area that’s historically known more for its bustling nightlife than its trendy restaurant scene. Owner Kenneth Emery, a seasoned restaurateur with spots in Charleston, S.C., decided to take a gamble on the area — which in the coming months will see the opening of the long-awaited boutique hotel property Hotel Haya and, Emery hopes, dining concepts that will go beyond pizza-by-the-slice shops.
The restaurant is a beautiful and ambitious undertaking, with a refined cocktail and dining program touting thoughtful touches and finessed technique. The restaurant’s design is a clear nod to the historic location. Divided by a long bar, the luxe speakeasy-themed atmosphere feels plucked straight from 1920s Ybor, all the way down to the old cigar boxes that double as check presenters.
Emery has made it very public that Barterhouse’s mission is to source high-quality, local and sustainable ingredients. A sample online menu sports a #knowyourfarmer hashtag at the bottom. Is everything here sustainable? Is everything here from Florida? No. But the effort is there, and the owners want to make sure you know about it.
The pitch feels a little outdated, at a time when so many restaurants of a certain caliber have made sourcing locally a natural part of their ethos.
Despite this messaging from Barterhouse, the provenance of most of the ingredients is not listed on the current menu. But when I talked to Emery after I had eaten at the restaurant, he was happy to tell me where certain items came from. He said the oysters are always sourced from the Panacea co-op in Wakulla County; the chicken always comes from Tampa TrailBale Farm. The clams are from either Cedar Key or Manatee County, depending on what’s available. An octopus dish sources from the Mediterranean, while blue crabs are brought in from somewhere in the gulf.
Helming the kitchen is Justin Sells, a tenured chef and restaurant consultant who has worked with Emeril Lagasse. It was his idea to do a spin on the crab chilau, which traditionally would have consisted of whole crabs cooked in a rich red sauce served over a bowl of spaghetti. Presumably, you’d eat this dish half with your hands, plucking apart the crab shells, and things could get real messy real fast.
That’s thankfully not the case here, as the pasta comes sporting fat morsels of jumbo lump crab meat, no crab shell disassembly required. The crab peeks from a thick, brick red tomato sauce, flavored with roasted red peppers and a touch of Creole seasoning ($32). This all arrives over a heaping bowl of fresh spaghetti, which the kitchen makes daily. It’s a dish that manages to feel both bucolic and humble but also exciting and innovative.
Dinners here can start with a selection of chewy focaccia and crusty sourdough from local bread pros Jamison B Breadhouse Bakes ($5) and a small ramekin of seaweed-dusted butter. I loved this touch, though my dinner companion on one visit wasn’t sold on the seafaring funk from the dark green nori. Admittedly, that might be more of an acquired taste.
Don’t skip the Native Clam Dip ($10), a rich, creamy and clam-studded spread that arrives tucked into the bottom half of a cigar box and sprinkled with smoked paprika. The starter is served with golden-fried gaufrette potato chips — think waffle-cut Lays, but much better. Fair warning: There might be a battle over who gets the last scoop.
While not all dishes sing a Florida song, many pluck inspiration from the bounty of the state’s land and sea. A toothsome Brassica Salad ($12) is a nod to the cruciferous greens that grow easily in Florida’s winter crop season. The towering pile of hearty greens is slicked with a champagne vinaigrette that’s vinegar-forward enough to help break down some of the sturdier salad elements, like Brussels sprouts and collards. The dish also features shaved kohlrabi (a wild cabbage similar to a turnip), sugary candied pecans and dried cherries, which add a nice bit of dimension and flavor.
Entrees all hover around the $30 mark, which might feel a bit pricey for the neighborhood but is in line with the portion size and quality of food you’re getting here. Though the menu does feature several rotating dishes, one of the kitchen’s reliable standbys has been the Hog + Hominy ($28), a play on words referencing the star component, gulf-caught hogfish — a beautiful, meaty white fish comparable to lobster and monkfish.
Here, it’s met with a unique preparation, nestled in a smooth sauce inspired by the Mexican dish posole, rich with the flavors of cumin and garlic, thickened with strips of fried tortillas and framed by a bed of clams.
Though the restaurant has been open since fall, it still has the buzz and feel of a newer restaurant, with servers scrambling on busier evenings to keep up with the volume of Ybor City on a Saturday night. (The bar stays open late on weekends.) If the kitchen continues to push a sustainable focus, I expect there will be seasonal changes to the menu, and it will be interesting to see where things go.
One dish that seems destined to anchor the list for the foreseeable future? That crab chilau, a taste of Old Ybor for whenever the mood strikes.
West Ybor Barterhouse
What the ratings mean
1-2: Don’t waste your time
3-5: Fair, but could be better
6-8: Pretty darn good
9-10: What are you waiting for?
If you go
1811 N 15th St. Suite A, Tampa; (813) 542-1710; barterhouseybor.com
Hours: Dinner, 5 to 10 p.m. Sunday, Wednesday and Thursday, 5 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Prices: Small and shared plates, $7 to $16; entrees, $28 to $32.
Recommended dishes: Native Clam Dip, Hog + Hominy, blue crab chilau