The middle of October is the beginning of Florida's glorious annual ascendance to the height of America's food consciousness. Our growing season is just starting, marked by the re-opening of markets across the state where local farmers can bring the produce of the nation's only true winter harvest. And, as if to celebrate this prodigious bounty, stone crabs are back.
Florida stone crab season stretches from October to May every year, but the early days are always filled with an orgy of mustard sauce and drawn butter, the waterfront restaurants packed with devotees of the tough little beasties. Which is why I find myself, just two days after the season opens, looking over the placid waters surrounding Tierra Verde in the glorious, old-Florida haunt called Billy's Stone Crab.
I've made this point before, but stone crab may be the most sustainable food resource in Florida, and is one of the only seafood options even a true vegetarian might not object to. When threatened, stone crabs thrust their armored claws at predators. If the claw is grabbed, it comes off, providing a distraction while the crab scuttles to safety. Florida's season allows crabbers to remove only a single claw (and then only if it's over 2.75 inches) — leaving one for defense. In about a year, the claws grow back. Except through mishap or incompetence, crabs aren't killed to provide you with delicious meat. Eat with a happy conscience.
Which is what we do within moments of sitting down on the lacquered wood benches of Billy's. First thing, before drinks or a glance at the menu, I order a round of both cold and steamed claws for the table ($12.95 for six). Stone crab meat is essentially a jelly that will cement itself to the shell if refrigerated, so all claws are steamed as soon as they are offloaded from the boats. You'll never find uncooked stone crab at the market. That also means that when you're served hot claws at a restaurant, they've been re-steamed just until heated through.
It's worth it, though, in order to pair the warm meat with crystal clear, melted butter. At Billy's, the absurdly thick armor of the claws is thoroughly cracked before the crab hits the table. You'll need to leverage the nutcrackers a few times to get at all the meat, but be careful. The first claw I go to work on twists in my hand and gashes open my thumb. Blood on the water, or in this case, on the mustard sauce.
It takes a little time to remember the proper technique to extract all the meat, but within minutes the table is silent, besides crack, snap and slurp. Part of stone crab's allure is the work it takes — even after catching and steaming — to fill your belly with meat that's heartier than that of most other crabs. Each claw is a process, with just enough tasty reward to carry you on to the next. It's entirely possible, given enough claws, to sit at a table and work/eat stone crab for hours on end. I've done it. Never feeling too full. Never sating the desire for just one more.
But after a few orders, we pull back and consider the rest of Billy's classic fishhouse menu. Turns out, we should have just spent more time with the crab.
Crab cakes ($8.95) here are gooey, laced with bits of jalapeno and stuffed with less crab flavor than a single stone claw. The patties are also deep fried to a dark brown crisp, leaving the meager crab shreds competing with an overwhelming flavor of fry. Same with conch fritters ($7.95), but the gooey moistness works better there. Both, however, are served with a sauce that is easily one of the worst things I've put into my mouth this year.
At first, the purple liquid tastes like old cough syrup that's been cooked down to a concentrated, clinging jelly. With morbid fascination, I try it again to find the same medicinal quality combined with a chemical berry flavor — maybe raspberry-esque — and odd herbs. Ugh.
Grouper ($24.95) is more typical, the filet tossed with just enough seasoning to maybe qualify as blackened. Similarly treated shrimp and scallops on the fish combo plate are about the same, the scallops a tad too fishy for comfort.
Billy's makes a big deal out of its steaks — aged "buckhead" beef — but it's not treated well. The sirloin ($16.95) looks like it's baked, the surface a pallid gray unmarked by any sign of crust. Pretty tough, too.
Pineapple slaw is a bit of a treat, with just enough fruit to accent the competent blend of cabbage and dressing. Sides of mashed potatoes are marked by giant hunks of un-mashed spud, and collards are unseasoned and spongy.
Honestly, this type of food is what I've come to expect from old-fashioned fish houses like Billy's. And it doesn't seem to deter regulars and visitors from heading to the restaurant in droves; it's midweek, and the place is packed with families, sunburned tourists and elderly couples.
Thankfully, Billy's has more to offer than just a bland and typical menu. The sprawling building is constructed entirely out of native cypress and pine, with a third-story crow's nest bar that is one of the most spectacular waterfront drinking spots in Pinellas. Up there, you'll find the obligatory crooner belting out Buffett and Morrison covers, a gorgeous view across "Hurricane Hole" and some damn cheap boat drinks.
Promise to head up there, take in the vibe, stick to stone crabs, and I'll recommend Billy's in a second. At least until May.