January 12, 1994
BEAUMONT, TX — For years, two lights guided motorists through Sabine Pass in the southeast corner of Texas—the caution light over a 90-degree turn of Texas 87 and the big neon-edged crab atop Sartin's Seafood.
When the oversized crimson crustacean went dark for the last time in 1988 in Sabine Pass and the Sartin family shuttered its famed restaurant, it was symbolic of the economic decline that gripped the Oil Coast.
But now word is buzzing along the Gulf Coast gastronomical grapevine: Sartin's is back. The 16-foot-wide crab now sits outside a north Beaumont restaurant.
And longtime Sartin aficionados are finding waiters once again bringing the famous $15.95 platter service: All-you-can-eat plates overflowing with steaming fried shrimp, fish, fries, hush puppies, crab claws, stuffed crab and—most of all—that local specialty, barbecued crabs. The decor is as funky as ever, with rolls of paper towels, stacks of paper plates and a trash can at the end of every table so eaters can shovel away the crab shells and dig in for more.
The newest restaurant could really be called "Son of Sartin's," since it is owned by Charles Douglas Sartin Jr., 23.
His parents, Charles and Jerri Sartin, founded the original restaurant in 1972. His sister, Kelli Sartin Boudreaux, 25, is the hostess.
The new proprietors insist they'll run the new place just as their parents did the original.
"Mamma Taught Us How!" the menu proclaims.
"I grew up in the Sabine Pass restaurant," Sartin Jr. said.
"All my friends and I worked there. When we were 8 years old they'd have us sitting on a bucket peeling shrimp." Added his sister: "We even lived in the place at first." The elder Sartin said the family never intended to open a restaurant, just a seafood market.
For more than 15 years he worked as a pipe fitter at the Texaco refinery in Port Arthur. He started catching shrimp, fish and crabs on the side in an old homemade 14-foot-long plywood skiff. He also trapped muskrat and nutria in local marshes in the winter.
Family friends Buddy and Dell Bewley lent the couple money to build and open what was intended as a small retail outlet for Sartin's catches. Sartin also saw another need in Sabine Pass.
"I told my wife, there's not a decent place to eat around here, why don't we serve some food?" the family patriarch recalled. "We bought a couple of these small deep fryers and put in four picnic tables that sat six people each." The restaurant side of the business took off so fast that the retail market idea was quickly thrown overboard.
The timing seemed perfect. The offshore oil business boomed and Sabine Pass and the rest of Texas boomed with it. Workers and tourists filled the place. Within two years, the Sartins had paid off the loan from their friends and the little restaurant was going through the first of six expansions.
Sabine Pass has long been a quirky town.
It was founded in 1839 as the city of Sabine by a group of investors that included Sam Houston. In 1863, 42 Confederate troops commanded by Lt. Dick Dowling, a saloon keeper from Houston, fended off a Yankee invasion of 5,000 troops in one of the most lopsided Confederate victories of the war.
Its importance as a port declined after waterways were dredged to Beaumont, Port Arthur and Orange. In 1978, Port Arthur, 12 miles inland, annexed Sabine Pass and some of the offshore oil production areas.
By the time the Sartins arrived there were about 1,500 residents in the area. Sabine Pass was a colorful mixture of shrimpers, offshore oil workers, refinery hands and helicopter pilots. It was at the northern end of the "hug-the-coast route" across Texas, a favorite of thousands of tourists.
Like many places that are at the end of the road, Sabine Pass seemed to attract interesting characters. It was the kind of place where one leading citizen liked to invite cronies to shoot cement-filled beer cans out of cannons to commemorate the 1863 battle.
Another enjoyed playing tennis on roller skates and warned anybody who listened that people should live underground because the book of Revelation warns that comets and planetoids will someday rain upon the Earth. Since any basement dug in Sabine Pass would quickly fill with water, the would-be prophet simply mounted a boat atop his mobile home so he would be ready when the comet shower caused the Gulf of Mexico to rise.
Still another who had operated a local motel spread the word that he had written a book that told all the dirt about local citizens. The book would be published after his death, he said.
Former residents who hadn't been in the town for 20 years often inquired about his health.
Sartin's, Boudreaux observed, fit right in.
"It was really neat having parents who ran a restaurant," she said. "I'd bring my friends over for lunch from school. It was only two blocks. Sometimes there would be three of us and sometimes I'd bring the whole school. Hell, there were only 200 students in the whole school." At first, the elder Sartin caught all the seafood himself and his wife worked 16-hour days cooking it. Sartin's original plywood skiff grew into a small fleet of shrimp boats.
The Sir Douglas was the flagship of the fleet.
"There was a boat called the Kelli," but it sank, Boudreaux said. "It sure looked sad there at the dock, with nothing above the water but the side that said 'Kelli' sticking up."
"I had 52 people working for me at one time," Charles Sartin said.
One of those employees was a cook who had learned the secret of the beloved barbecued crabs served at Granger's, a popular Sabine Pass roadhouse of years past. That restaurant burned down in 1958.
It's another Sabine Pass irony that barbecued crabs were never barbecued. They're deep fried. The name comes from the barbecue-like seasoning used to cook them.
Barbecued crabs were invented at Granger's in the late 1940s when a cook dipped a blue crab in some seasonings and plopped it into a deep-fat fryer.
In 1978, the Sartins and their kitchen staff worked with a chemist to develop their own barbecued crab seasoning mixture.
"It took us 28 tries to get it just right," said Linda Jacobs, who was a cook at Sabine Pass and is head of the new restaurant's kitchen.
Now they buy 40-pound buckets of what's called Sartin's Seafood Famous BBQ Crab Seasoning from Bolner's Fiesta Products, Inc., in San Antonio.
"We dust them with the seasoning and fry 'em and that's all I'm going to say about that," Jacobs said. The secret, she insists, is in the frying.
She and her 10-person kitchen crew now cook up to 300 dozen barbecued crabs a day.
"On weekends we have people standing in line waiting to get in," Boudreaux said.
The menu warns that a dinner at Sartin's isn't for those seeking fast food.
"Our food is hand prepared while you are here," it says. "It takes two hours to serve platter service during peak hours . . . so feel free to try McDonald's if you are in a hurry." The Sartins, like the rest of oil-rich Texas, spent freely in the heyday of the Sabine Pass restaurant.
"We had cars when we were 11 years old," Boudreaux said.
"There weren't any cops down there and our parents let us drive." When Geneva Broussard, a popular Sartin's hostess, opened up her own restaurant across the street in Sabine Pass in the 1980s and later opened three drive-through seafood restaurants, nasty rumors circulated around Sabine Pass.
"The rumors said that my dad had run off with Geneva and that they had opened the restaurant across the street to run my mother out of business," Boudreaux said.
"All the rumors were untrue." Broussard is back at the new restaurant.
"I don't want any part of being an owner again," she said.
"All I have to worry about when I leave here at night is what I'm going to wear the next day." As the 1980s drew to a close, so did the oil boom. Fewer workers traveled through Sabine Pass and there were fewer tourists who could afford to go all the way to Sabine Pass just to have dinner.
The crowning blow came when the beach road between Sabine Pass and High Island was washed out by hurricanes. Hurricane Allen damaged it in 1980 and Alicia caused even more damage in 1983.
Although officially closed, the road remained passable and intrepid tourists still used it. It was repaired in 1984 and 1985, but ruined again in 1988 and 1989 by hurricanes Gilbert and Jerry.
Storms since then have made the road impassable.
By late 1988, Charles and Jerri Sartin were in deep financial problems.
The restaurant wasn't making enough to pay the utility bills and the Internal Revenue Service was knocking on the doors.
For awhile the IRS seized the building, but Charles Sartin was able to recover it.
And the Sartin's dynasty quickly rebounded. In 1989, the family opened a successful Crystal Beach restaurant—one that ultimately was forced to close because it overloaded its septic tank system. The same year, Doug Sartin opened his own restaurant, Seafood Warehouse, in Beaumont.
"I never wanted to be in the restaurant business," said Boudreaux. After she graduated from high school she studied communications at the University of Mississippi for a year. "I wanted to be a TV news person," she said.
"It's the money that got us back into the business. You can make a lot of money in this business, but you have to be willing to work at it." In November 1990, the younger Sartin opened a Sartin's Seafood in a former Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant in Nederland.
That place was just too small, he said. He closed it when he opened the latest restaurant. "I think we're going to be here awhile," he said. "I've got a 99-year-lease." The big Sartin's crab sign has done a lot of traveling during the past few years—from Sabine Pass to Crystal Beach and then to Nederland and finally to Beaumont.
It's already starting to draw long-time fans to the newest Sartin's.
"My brother called me about it as soon as he saw that sign," said Tracy Hergert, manager of a Houston restaurant, as he worked on a platter of barbecued crabs one day last week.
"I decided to come over here for lunch. As long as I can remember, we've been making that drive to Sartin's."