Barbecue (BBQ) Crabs
BBQ crabs were invented at Granger's in Sabine Pass,
TX, during the late 1940's when one of their cooks
seasoned a blue crab with some zestful seasoning and
then deep fried it. The rest is history!
Granger's, a once-popular Sabine Pass roadhouse, was
destroyed by fire in 1958. Many years later, Sartin's
Seafood in Sabine Pass resurrected the tradition.
Unlike "Maryland Style" crabs where live blue crabs
are first seasoned, steamed whole, then cleaned
on-the-fly by the hungry diner, BBQ crabs are cleaned
first, seasoned, and then deep fried.
And, contrary to the recipe's name, barbecue crabs
are not barbecued. The name comes from the
barbecue-like seasoning used to season them (originally
Sexton's Alamo Zestful Seasoning was used.)
When the waitress delivers the steaming tangle of
barbecue crabs and sets the heaping platter before you,
there's no doubt where you are: Sartin's Seafood. The
crabs are fat and full of sweet, rich meat and crusted
with a red-pepper spice mix that sets a tenderfoot mouth
Sartin's Seafood started in 1971 when Charles and
Jerri Sartin opened a little restaurant (four tables
inside; four tables outside) in front of
the family's 65-foot trailer house in Sabine Pass, TX,
and started serving seafood. It has been locally famous
Sartin's BBQ crab recipe calls for fresh hard-shell
blue crabs to be cleaned and broken in half, dusted with
their "secret" seasoning mix and then deep-fried.
Sartin's original recipe called for Sexton's Alamo
Zestful Seasoning, but Sexton went out of business and
they had to come up with a similar seasoning to use. In
1978 the Sartins' worked with Bolner's
Fiesta Products to try and duplicate the Sexton formula.
It took 28 tries to get it just right. They now buy
40-pound buckets of what's called Sartin's Seafood
Famous BBQ Crab Seasoning.
Sartin's now has three locations, all of them
family-owned. One in Nederland, one in Beaumont, and one
in Houston. Kelli Sartin, the daughter of the founders,
opened the Houston restaurant after her shop in Beaumont
was destroyed by Hurricane Rita in 2005. The owners of
the other two restaurants are Kim Lynch and Emily
Summers. The original Sartin's in Sabine Pass closed in
18023 Upper Bay Road
Owner: Kelli Sartin
3520 Nederland Avenue
Owner: Kim Lynch
12647 Highway 90
Owner: Emily Summers
For more reading on the Sartin legacy, see the
following articles from the Houston Chronicle:
Start with live hard-shell blue crabs, discarding any
that are dead. Place the live blue crabs in ice-water
for several minutes to stun (it is best to use a large
cooler for this purpose). Once immersed in ice-water,
the crabs will become dormant. After several minutes the
crabs will be "asleep", then you can easily handle them
with your bare hands.
Take each crab and remove it's carapace (top shell).
This is done by grasping the legs on one side of its
body and prying the shell off, using the sharp spines
for leverage. This kills the crab instantly.
Turn the crab upside down and, using a knife or other
sharp object, pry up and remove the crab's "apron" which
is folded up under its body.
Turn the crab right-side up. Using your thumb and
index finger, grasp the crab's mouth parts and twist off
to remove. Remove the spongy gills from each side of the
body and the entrails (guts) from inside the main body
cavity. Rinse clean.
(See "Clean before you Cook" for step-by-step
instructions about how to get to this point.)
Repeat this procedure until all of your crabs have
After all of your crabs have been cleaned, remove the
two large claws and reserve. Do not remove the legs.
Next, break each cleaned body in half.
At this point you should have two halves, each with
four legs still attached. Each body half should be
completely clean and consist of nothing but glistening
white shell with meat inside.
Dredge each body half in seafood seasoning (see
resources below) to completely coat. Place the seasoned
crabs in the refrigerator for 1 or 2 hours to allow the
seasoning to penetrate into the meat.
"Pappy" Painton used to live in Port Arthur, TX, back
in the 1960s and raved about the BBQ crabs at a place
called Mama's that was located under the big bridge in
Port Arthur. Evidently he managed to get the secret
recipe from the cook after a night of crabs and beer.
The secret recipe was basically Liquid Smoke and Sexton
Alamo Zestful Seasoning. Mix one part Liquid Smoke with
one part water. Place cleaned crabs in the Liquid Smoke
mixture for several minutes prior to coating with
Heat oil in a deep-fat fryer to 350°F.
Remove the crabs from the refrigerator. Once the oil
has reached the proper temperature, drop a few of the
crabs into the hot oil.
Deep fry until they turn red and float to the
surface, approximately 5-7 minutes. Repeat until all of
the crabs are cooked.
Serve immediately, while steaming hot. Optionally,
you can sprinkle the cooked crabs with more seafood
seasoning before serving.
The claws, which were removed, should be boiled in
water until they turn bright red and float to the
Boil the crabs for three minutes prior to
seasoning and frying. This technique helps prevent the
meat from sticking to the shell.
With a crab in your hand, grab one of the legs and
gently twist and pull it off. With any luck, a large
lump of delicious white meat pull out with it. Repeat
with each leg. Once all the legs are pulled, cut in half
and use a knife to dig out the remaining meat. The
boiled claws should be cracked open to reveal the
delicious, sweet claw meat inside.
BBQ crabs are prepared using a spicy
seafood seasoning. Originally, Sexton brand Alamo
Zestful Seasoning was used exclusively (a former Sexton
employee once said that Sartin's Seafood was by far the
largest buyer of Alamo Zestful Seasoning.) But, in 1983,
John Sexton & Co. was sold to S.E. Rykoff & Company and
Sexton branded products vanished from the market. People
scrambled for a replacement. Reputations were on the
line, so restaurants consulted chemists in an effort to
exactly duplicate the taste of their beloved crab
seasoning. Bolner's Fiesta Products is a spice
manufacturer who claims to have closely matched the
unique flavor and cooking characteristics of Sexton's
original blend. Sartin's Seafood, the restaurant that made BBQ
crabs famous, worked with several different engineers to
exactly duplicate Alamo seasoning in order to keep their
trademark BBQ crabs on the menu and their customers
happy. After a lot of research, I have been able to
locate several other spice manufacturers who market
Alamo Zestful seasonings of their own. The fruits of my
Sexton Alamo Zestful Seasoning - This is
purportedly the original "secret" BBQ crab seasoning
that started it all... and was the seasoning originally
used at Granger's and Sartin's a long time ago. Alamo
Zestful Seasoning was manufactured by John Sexton & Co.,
founded in 1883. Beatrice Foods purchased the John
Sexton Company back in 1968 and continued to market the
Sexton brand. But, in 1983, Beatrice sold its Sexton
Foods operation to S.E. Rykoff & Company which then
dropped the Sexton label.
Monarch Alamo Zestful Seasoning - Monarch is a
subsidiary of U.S. Foodservice (U.S. Foodservice
purchased Rykoff-Sexton in 1998.) It is not known
whether U.S. Foodservice re-branded the original Sexton
product under its Monarch label or if this is a new
formulation, but I suspect that it is the same formula. Monarch brand seasonings are available only
to restaurants and foodservice institutions that buy
directly from U.S. Foodservice. Ingredients: Salt,
Sugar, Paprika (as color), Spices, Dextrose, Chili
Pepper, Dehydrated Onion, Turmeric (as color), Natural
Flavor, Black Pepper, Red Pepper, Dehydrated Garlic and
less than 2% Tricalcium Phosphate to prevent caking.
Durkee Zestful Seasoning - Durkee is a
division of Tone Brothers, Inc. Tone Brothers Spices was
owned by Rykoff-Sexton between the years 1989 and 1994.
A Tone's spokesperson said that their
Seasoning is based on the old Sexton formula. You'll
note that the Durkee product and the Monarch product
carry identical ingredient labels. I sampled both
seasonings side by side and could not discern any
difference in taste. Available online from
Distributing or by calling 1-800-373-3726 ($12.00 for a
33 oz. container). Ingredients: Salt, Sugar, Paprika
(color), Spices, Dextrose, Chili Pepper, Dehydrated
Onion, Turmeric (color), Natural Flavor, Black Pepper,
Red Pepper, Dehydrated Garlic and Less than 2% Tricalcium Phosphate to prevent caking.
McCormick Alamo ZestfulŽ Seasoning -
claims to be the world's largest spice company so it's
no surprise that McCormick has an Alamo Zestful
Seasoning blend of its own. McCormick developed its
Alamo seasoning back in 1999 to fulfill a customer's
demand for this type of seasoning (they wouldn't tell me
which customer.) With a clean and
spicy taste, McCormick Alamo Zestful Seasoning has a
flavor that very closely resembles Sartin's current
spice blend. Ingredients: Salt, Sugar, Monosodium
Glutamate (Flavor Enhancer), Dextrose, Spices (Including
Red Pepper), Chili Peppers, Onion, Paprika, Garlic,
Turmeric, Extractives of Paprika, and Extractives of
Turmeric. Also available with no MSG. Note: The last
time I spoke with a McCormick representative, I learned
that this seasoning blend was being phased out.
Fiesta Bar-B-Que Crab Seasoning - Manufactured
Bolner's Fiesta Products, Inc. located in San
Antonio, TX. When supplies of Sexton Alamo Zestful
Seasoning dried up, restaurants scrambled to find a
similar seasoning for making BBQ crabs. Bolner's reverse
engineered a sample of Alamo seasoning and created a
seasoning blend that's close to the original Sexton
formula (some say it's better!) According to Michael
Bolner, their product is used in nearly all of the BBQ
crab restaurants in the Golden Triangle (the area around
Beaumont, Port Arthur and Orange.) Bolner's calls its
Fiesta brand Bar-B-Que Crab Seasoning (available
online - $3.39 for a 14 oz. container). Ingredients:
Salt, MSG, Sugar, Spices, Onion, Garlic, Dextrose,
Propylene Glycol (preservative), TBHQ, and Citric Acid.
RECIPE: Here's a close approximation of Bolner's
recipe that I came up with: 10 parts salt, 3 parts sugar, 3 parts paprika, 3
parts garlic powder, 2 parts onion powder, 1 part MSG
(optional), 1/4 part black pepper, 1/4 part cayenne
pepper. Put ingredients in a jar, cover, and shake to
TexJoy Seafood Seasoning - Manufactured by the
Texas Coffee Company, Beaumont, TX. The Texas Coffee
Company is the manufacturer and distributor of Seaport
Coffee and a full line of spice blends under the TexJoy
label. Try their TexJoy brand Seafood Seasoning
(available online - $3.15 for a 16 oz. container). This
product tastes more like Old Bay seasoning than Alamo
seasoning, but nevertheless makes good BBQ crabs.
Ingredients: Salt, Cayenne Pepper, Garlic Powder,
Spices, and Calcium Stearate.
McCormick Old Bay Seasoning - In a pinch, you
Old Bay brand seasoning (available nationwide)
to prepare BBQ crabs. Mix equal parts of Old Bay and
sugar to get a close approximation of Zestful Seasoning.
Ingredients: Celery Salt (Salt, Celery Seed), Spices
(Including Mustard, Red Pepper, Bay [Laurel] Leaves,
Cloves, Allspice [Pimento], Ginger, Mace, Cardamom,
Cinnamon), and Paprika.
Homemade seasoning - If you wish to try your hand at
making your own seafood seasoning, try any of
For truly authentic tasting BBQ crabs, I highly
recommend using Fiesta brand Bar-B-Que Crab Seasoning by
Bolner's Fiesta Products. Bolner's product is virtually
indistinguishable from Sartin's formula. I also
recommend the Monarch Alamo Zestful Seasoning and Durkee Zestful Seasoning (actually, the Monarch and
Durkee products taste exactly the same!) I've been told
that the Monarch/Durkee seasoning tastes nearly
identical to the original Sexton product (I was told
this by people who can still remember what the Sexton
seasoning tasted like.) But, these same people actually
prefer the taste of the Fiesta seasoning.