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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, the 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 the 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 caravans of cars drove in on scenic Highway 87 from Houston, and crowds would swill beer in the parking lot from noon until nine at night.
“We had some magnificent years,” says Jerri wistfully. At its peak, from the mid-seventies to the early eighties, Sartin’s was feeding an incredible 1,500 to 2,000 customers a day on weekends and grossing $1.25 million annually. The family lived high on the hog. Just like the rest of the state, though, Sartin’s and Sabine Pass were floating along on the bubble of the oil boom, living in a kind of dream state that simply did not recognize words like “thrift” and “prudence” and “tomorrow.”
As bubbles have a way of doing, however, this one finally burst. In January 1985 Sartin’s got a spectacularly low inspection score (47 on a scale of 100) from the Port Arthur Department of Health; although the restaurant quickly pulled the score up to 90, local gossip persisted. Then, three years later, Hurricane Gilbert tore up part of Highway 87. But the most serious blow was the steadily unraveling oil economy—that and the restaurant’s stubborn refusal to gut up to hard times. “I don’t have no degree in cost cutting,” says Jerri defiantly. “I like to serve a big full plate; I want to fill that sucker up and be proud of it.” Food costs hurt, but the biggest drains on the business were overhead and personnel. Jerri says, “I had twenty-five to thirty tons of air conditioning just sucking those dollars up. And we didn’t want to lay anybody off.” In December 1989 Sartin’s big red neon crab sign went out for the last time. Some six months later, the Internal Revenue Service seized the restaurant for back taxes.
Once again, it appeared to be the end of an era—no more barbecued crabs—and it would have been except for one small fact. Across the highway from Sartin’s was a restaurant that had been waiting three years for a break like this: the Channel Inn. “I always had a dream to own a restaurant,” says the Inn’s owner, Bill Williams, 42, a second-generation resident of Sabine Pass.
In 1986 he borrowed $140,000 and fixed up the old Geneva’s restaurant. Then he sought out Lenora Orphy, who had cooked at Sartin’s until about 1982 and was known to make a mean gumbo, and Frank Lewis, the man who knew all there was to know about barbecued crabs. It was rough going at first. “We didn’t start off with no boom, that’s for sure,” says Williams. And he didn’t exactly get respect from Sartin’s. “They just laughed at us—‘Who the hell did we think we were?’ ” he says with a trace of bitterness. But he persevered, building up his business one customer at a time.
In subtle ways the Channel Inn was a little nicer than Sartin’s, but the basics—all-you-can-eat “platter service” ($14.95), paper towels, trash cans—were a carbon copy. As Williams sees it, the big difference was that he was a better businessman: “We’ve sold four million crabs since we opened, and in 1990 we did $1.2 million in sales,” he says. “We’re expanding right now from 290 seats to about 400; we already have 286 reservations for tonight, and winter is a slow time.” If Sartin’s had been the carefree grasshopper in the local restaurant scene, the Channel Inn was the serious ant.
As you might expect, feelings between Sartin’s and the Channel Inn ran high, with suspicions of dirty tricks abounding. Sartin’s customers noticed that after Sartin’s closed, for example, the recorded disconnect message gave out the Channel Inn’s phone number. Was that because somebody made an honest mistake, or was it because Bill Williams had relatives who worked for the phone company? For his part, Williams was plenty steamed that Jerri Sartin wouldn’t go along with his idea to promote Sabine Pass as the barbecued-crab capital of the world in 1987. “She never was much of a businesswoman,” he scoffs. Jerri’s daughter, Kelli Sartin Boudreaux, a perky blond with a wry Dolly Parton smile, rolls her eyes and says, “Anything I say about the Channel Inn is liable to get a lawsuit slapped in my face.”
By all logic, the mantle of fame worn first by Granger’s and then by Sartin’s should have been passed to the Channel Inn. Jerri and Charles had gone back to commercial fishing, and although Kelli and her brother, Doug, 22, had started Sartin’s restaurants in Beaumont and Crystal Beach, both establishments subsequently closed (they have since opened one in Nederland in October 1990). But as usual, logic didn’t have a lot to do with life in Sabine Pass. After failing to sell the restaurant, even at the ridiculously low price of $5,000, the IRS cut a deal with Jerri and Charles: It let them buy back their place for $70,000 on the installment plan.
When the final papers were signed last November, everybody connected with Sartin’s—the family, the waitresses, the cooks, the Vietnamese women who cleaned the crabs and shrimp—just about went crazy with happiness. Kelli bought champagne and party hats, and they laughed and cried and pounded each other on the back. “We felt so stupid because we were crying over a damn building,” says Kelli, “but we just couldn’t help it.”
On Friday, December 14, Sartin’s red neon crab sign went on for the first time in nearly a year. The next night Jerri sat in the dining room with a look of wonder on her face. “I can’t tell you what this feels like,” she said, “except it’s like coming home. I think we have a real good chance of making a comeback.” Sartin’s newly repaneled dining room was half full of locals and boisterous passengers from two charter buses from Houston. True, it wasn’t like the old days, but it wasn’t bad, considering. Across the street, the Channel Inn’s parking lot was full. There were a lot of happy, more-than-slightly-greasy people in Sabine Pass that night.
Someday somebody ought to put up a monument in the little community, like the giant jackrabbit in Odessa or the Popeye in Crystal City. It would be a crab, of course, but not a fresh crab. This one would be the color of mahogany and would have a peculiar speckled, almost crispy look to it. Visitors would be puzzled at first, but then they would stop at a restaurant—maybe Sartin’s, maybe the Channel Inn—and they would understand. As Bill Williams puts it, “Barbecued crabs: That’s what Sabine Pass is all about.”