A platter of barbecued crabs does not look like food; it looks like kindling wood. Angular elbows and knees poke from a mass of fat brown bodies stacked six or more inches high. Savory aromas waft from deep within the pile. A person attempting to dislodge a specimen from anywhere but the top finds a tangle of legs worse than wire hangers in the bottom of a closet. To sit in front of a platter of barbecued crabs—gnawing and crunching and picking and sucking until you can’t hold another sweet, spicy ounce and don’t have a square inch of exposed skin left uncovered with grease—is a ritual so primitive and so satisfying that it defies analysis.
In one tiny corner of southeast Texas, he barbecued crab is king. There, the savory crustaceans enjoy such gastronomic cachet that millions—maybe tens of millions—have been consumed. Outside the area, nobody has even heard of them, much less eaten one. Barbecued crabs can be found in Port Arthur, Nederland, Crystal Beach, and Groves, but the undisputed barbecued-crab capital of the world is Sabine Pass. It was here that the dish was invented, and it is here that two giant restaurants are locked pincer to pincer in a bitter contest to decide whether there is room for more than one at the top of the pile.
One of those windswept, salt-pocked towns that punctuate the Texas coast, Sabine Pass (now officially part of Port Arthur) is little more than a gas station and a clump of buildings that huddle at the intersection where Texas Highway 87 makes a right turn and heads toward the Gulf. To a visitor just driving through, the little community of roughly one thousand doesn’t even seem like a promising rest stop, much less a place to eat—yet in defiance of all logic, Sabine Pass has been a culinary mecca for decades.
It established its claim to fame one day in 1947 or 1948 at Granger’s, a well-known local roadhouse, when Jerry Dwight, the owner’s stepson, was in the kitchen, flavoring up a batch of fresh cooking oil. A blue crab was close at hand, so he dredged it in some pungent Sexton’s Alamo Zestful Seasoning and tossed it into the deep fryer. When he was finished, he ate the crab and found to his surprise that it was not just okay, not just good—it was terrific. (What it wasn’t, of course, was “barbecued” in any sense of the word, but that was a fine point that didn’t seem to cause anyone any loss of sleep.) Sabine Pass was on its way to making gastronomic history.
“I remember visiting Granger’s as a girl,” says Edith Huber, who works for the Convention and Visitors Bureau in Port Arthur. “It had been around since the thirties, and all my daddy’s clients wanted to go there. There were even alligators crawling around in a pen in the restaurant.” Owner Adnell Granger, an avid hunter, hung trophy deer, sharks, and gators on the walls. His wife, Edna, whose family owned the Catfish Hotel in Wellington, insisted on white tablecloths and finer bowls to give the place a touch of class. On Wednesday nights, when decent folk were in church, the ladies of Grace Woodyard’s Port Arthur brothel were allowed to dine at Granger’s in a private dining room. The fact that the restaurant had slot machines for gambling didn’t hurt business either. Tourists from as far away as the East Coast found their way to Sabine Pass, asking whereabouts of that place with the barbecued crabs.
Adnell died in the early fifties, and in 1958, while Edna was dying in the hospital, Granger’s burned in a spectacular fire that half the town turned out to fight. It was the end of an era, but not the end—fortunately—of barbecued crabs. They continued to be served at the Dick Dowling Inn and the Rebel Inn, but it was almost fifteen years before the torch was passed to an institution that had the chutzpah to revive the tradition of Granger’s. That restaurant was Sartin’s.
Jerri Sartin, 55, is wearing Sabine Pass dress-for-success—denim overalls, a black T-shirt, and rubber thongs—and telling how Sartin’s started back in 1972. Her bleached blond hair is cut short and she talks nonstop, pausing only to let loose a tremendous laugh now and again. She recalls, “A friend named Dell Bewley and I were driving around on Christmas Eve—tossing a few back to keep warm and be intelligent, right?—and she said, ‘I have seventeen thousand dollars that I have to invest by the first of the year.’ I told her, ‘Hell, let me do something with it.’”
At the time, Jerri and her husband, Charles, and their two young children were living in a mobile home. Charles was working as a pipe fitter for the Texaco refinery, running crab traps, and doing a little of everything else to get enough money together to start a restaurant. They bought a lot and built B&D Seafood Market, naming it for Buddy and Dell Bewley, and in a short while decided to add a few picnic tables and sell fried seafood. By 1980 the restaurant, now Sartin’s, had expanded into four dining rooms with more than six hundred seats, and six cooks were busy all the time. One of them—Frank Lewis—had worked for Granger’s in its heyday, and he taught Jerri the secret of barbecued crabs. The legend was reborn.
People came in droves to Sartin’s, just as they had to Granger’s, but for totally different reasons. The attraction of Granger’s had been finding a fine restaurant in the middle of nowhere. The attraction of Sartin’s was finding, well, a mess hall in the middle of nowhere. Most of the place was set up lunchroom style, with a roll of paper towels and a trash can at the end of each table so that when the tabletop became a wasteland of crab legs and shrimp tails, customers could sweep them off without missing a bite. On Saturdays