ST. PETERSBURG — The smell of jasmine always reminds me of crawfish season.
I’ll pass by a block dotted with the fragrant bush in my St. Petersburg neighborhood and almost immediately I’m transported back to Louisiana, standing in front of a table covered in newspaper clippings. Someone hoists a large pot to the table and pours out a jumble of bright red crawfish glistening in boiling spices. Out tumble fat links of smoky andouille sausage, plump potatoes, bright yellow ears of corn and — oh, I’m hungry.
In New Orleans, crawfish boils are ubiquitous this time of year — they mark the start of spring and taper off when hotter days begin knocking on our door. They are a harbinger of better times ahead — festivals, graduation parties and outdoor gatherings — before we all scramble back indoors to our cold drinks and air conditioning. More importantly, crawfish boils are all about community and tradition. There’s nothing like standing around a long table shoulder to shoulder with friends and strangers, digging in with bare hands and making a complete and glorious mess of ourselves.
Of course, events like those have been hard to come by this past year: Communal crawfish picking isn’t exactly the most pandemic-friendly of practices.
In New Orleans, this isn’t a dealbreaker, as plenty of restaurants sell boiled crawfish to-go by the pound. But this is Tampa Bay, not Louisiana. While it’s not too difficult to find a shrimp or crab boil around town, crawfish are another story. Many local boiled seafood spots don’t source fresh crawfish, and there’s a significant taste difference between crawfish that’s been sitting in a freezer bag for months and the real, live thing.
Hankering for a mudbug fix, I did some research. Turns out, I’m not the only homesick Louisianan suffering from spring crawfish fever: A small collection of local restaurants, chefs and seafood providers have started sourcing the crustaceans for boils and take-home dinners in Tampa Bay.
“There was something missing in this market,” said Rick “Ricky P” Parsons, the local chef and former owner of the since-shuttered New Orleans-themed restaurant Ricky P’s.
Since February, Parsons has been throwing monthly crawfish boils at the Big Catch at Salt Creek in St. Petersburg. Like others in his line of work, Parsons, 68, was out of a job when he had the idea for the boils. The Louisiana-raised chef, who describes himself as “happily semiretired,” hadn’t spent a season without them for as long as he could remember, and he spotted a niche market that hadn’t yet been fully tapped.
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Although he wasn’t sure at first what diners’ reactions would be, Parsons said the boils have been a bigger hit than he could have imagined. He now hosts boils at the waterfront St. Petersburg bar on the third Tuesday of every month — and sells out every single time.
Parsons said his clientele has been a mix of both longtime crawfish connoisseurs and first-timers. He’s happy to show diners how to “suck the head and pinch the tails,” a saying referring to the common crawfish-eating method.
“One guy, he was just eating the legs, like it was crab or something,” Parsons recalled, laughing.
Part of what makes live crawfish boils harder to come by in the Tampa Bay area is that sourcing the crustaceans can be costly and time-consuming. Roughly 90 percent of all U.S. farmed and wild crawfish comes from Louisiana; they are found in swamps, canals, irrigation ditches and wetlands, as well as farmed in rice paddies. Parsons sources his from a seafood provider in New Orleans and flies the live crawfish out in large sacks, which are then stored in refrigerated cooling bins at the Southwest Airlines terminal until he picks them up the next day.
Even though they’re not native to Florida, crawfish boils in the Tampa Bay area are increasing in popularity, said David Bilyeu, who runs the Louisiana-inspired restaurant and catering company Bayou Market and Cafe in St. Petersburg.
Like Parsons, Bilyeu grew up in Louisiana and sources his crawfish from New Orleans. Bilyeu said he’s seen a growing interest in both the crawfish he sells by the pound as well as in larger catered events, where sometimes hundreds of people show up and he can easily go through a thousand-plus pounds in a day.
“Almost every week, we’ve sold out before we open,” Bilyeu said.
And folks better get their crawfish fix sooner than later, he said: Crawfish have a limited season that usually runs somewhere between mid-January and early June. Right now? “The season is really rolling and the crawfish are huge,” Bilyeu said.
Meaning the timing for crawfish has never been better.
Where to find crawfish in Tampa Bay
Though hosting a crawfish boil can be fun, it’s also a lot of work. For those looking for ready-to-eat crawfish, there are several local options. It’s a good idea to call the business ahead to check on availability and pricing, which can fluctuate weekly.
The Big Catch at Salt Creek
Chef Rick “Ricky P” Parsons hosts a monthly boil at this St. Petersburg waterfront spot. The first boil usually starts around 5 p.m. and guests are advised to call ahead to reserve their batch. Parsons’ boils feature a spicy mix of Chinese cayenne peppers, celery, crab boiling spices and rock salt. Full boil platters with sausage, corn and potatoes cost $18 to $20 per pound, depending on the market wholesale price. Live music is featured and several other New Orleans-themed dishes from Parsons, including jambalaya and crab cakes, are also served.
1500 Second St. S, St. Petersburg. 727-289-8080. thebigcatchatsaltcreek.com.
Bayou Market and Cafe
Crawfish sold at this St. Petersburg market are boiled with a Zatarain’s blend with potatoes, corn and sausage. Ready-to-eat crawfish is sold in 2-, 5- and 10-pound bags. Owner David Bilyeu can also place orders for full sacks of live crawfish upon request (currently around $2.25 to $2.50 a pound ) as well as host larger catered boils for private gatherings. Due to the boil’s popularity, diners should reserve their meals ahead of time.
6630 Central Ave., St. Petersburg. 727-914-7500. bayoumarketandcafe.com.
JB’s Seafood Market
The Gulfport market sells both live crawfish and seasoned, ready-to-eat boiled crawfish for takeout. A daily voicemail recording tells customers the cost and availability of crawfish, which fluctuates on a weekly basis.
1946 49th St. S, Gulfport. 727-202-6808. jbsseafood.com.
Key West Seafood Co.
Live crawfish are sold both by the pound as well as seasoned, steamed and ready-to-eat at this Gulfport seafood market. Live crawfish are currently $5.99 per pound; 30-pound sacks go for $4.99 per pound. Seasoned and cooked crawfish are $7.99 per pound. The store also sells a variety of different boil seasoning packets.
1449 49th St. S, Gulfport. 727-289-2019. keywestshrimpcompany.com.
The Tampa spot sells ready-to-eat crawfish boiled in both Cajun garlic butter sauce and a traditional spice blend, which ranges from mild to extra spicy. The boil dinners are priced at $13.99 per pound.
1000 W Waters Ave., Tampa. tastycajuntampa.com.