It doesn't get better than this. So worth the drive.On my way back to Miami from Tampa recently, I decided to take Tamiami Trail instead of I-75 for a stop at Everglades City, a small town in the middle of the wilderness on the gulf coast. Founded in 1924, the town is where the stone crab craze started back in the 1940's when commercial fisherman and Everglades granddaddy Loren "Totch" Brown saw not a cow, but a cash claw in what was once a nuisance critter.
It was Brown who first introduced Miami Beach sandwich shop owner Joe Weiss to stone crabs, a fateful day in the island's history, as the much coveted delicacy would become synonymous with South Beach culinary indulgence at the ever-popular Joe's Stone Crabs.
Each year, from October to May, local fisherman in Everglades City set their traps to catch the stone crabs, remove their claws and ship the seafood product worldwide. Small and unassuming, but brimming with old Florida charm, this capital of stone crab fishing seems overshadowed by the luxury dining establishments where the humble claws arrive at their final destination, Joe's being no exception.
I've never eaten at Joe's, mainly because I have always been turned off by the fact that you can't make reservations, that the waiting times are legendary, that the prices are astronomical and that botox and lamborghinis serve as backdrop for the atmosphere. (I've had drinks at Joe's bar, however; trust me, it's quite a parade when the diners pack in for the cattle call.)
So instead, I couldn't resist this opportunity explore the backcountry. Why not eat where the damn things are caught? Why not savor the delicacy right there, surrounded by the murky waters of the Glades that stone crabs call home? Joe's may be fancy, but there's something special about eating at the source.
You won't have to slip the maitre'd a Benjamin to get a seat at Triad Seafood on the Barron River.
For my stone crab lunch, I opted for Triad Seafood Market and Café, a rustic spot right on the Barron River with an outdoor deck and a screened-in dining room. Triad has been selling seafood since 1986 and became a restaurant in 2004. The place is family-owned; some members even live upstairs.
I started with a cup of rich shrimp gumbo, which stuck to my ribs, though I would have preferred more heat. (A bottle of Crystal sauce took care of that.) But the real deal was one pound of medium-sized stone crab claws for a market price of $19.95, which was more than enough for one hungry person and boy, I do like to eat. I didn't even bother with side dishes; it's enough to dig into those claws, which are served with mustard sauce or butter, yet just as good on their own.
Those with even bigger appetites can enjoy all-you-can-eat stone crabs with two sides, which was $42 market price on the day of my visit.
(A recent trip to Joe's Takeaway, a less formal cafe attached to the main restaurant, confirmed that the same portions were more than half the price in South Beach and Joe's doesn't do all-you-can-eat. Oh lawdy, how could they? That would be so frowned upon in such an establishment!)
I washed down the sweet, fleshy crab meat with a couple of cold beers and the whole bill was less than $35, including tip. Would it be worth driving one and a half hours to Everglades City for the same treat again? You bet. I think I'd rather do that than go to South Beach, deal with parking and wait in line for a table. Besides, where else in the world can you drive through Everglades hammocks and witness the glorious sea of grass?
To be fair, there's nothing wrong with Joe's if that's your cup of tea; it's not only a beautiful place, but also an important South Beach landmark. Let's just not forget one little detail: we Miamians don't have to drive far to enjoy stone crab claws simply and with none of the fuss, right there where it all started.
IF YOU GO
Triad Seafood is located at 401 West School Drive and is open seven days a week from 10:30 AM to 5:00 PM. I was told it's popular on the weekends with Miami BMW bikers, but when I went during the week, the only other people I saw were a couple on their way back from their vacation home in the Cayman Islands who had stopped here before heading north, because yes, it's that good.
If stone crabs aren't your thing, there are plenty of other menu items ranging from conch chowder and fried oysters to homemade pies. Go before May 15 -- that's when stone crab season ends. Stone crabs are also for sale in the market.
Make a day trip out of it: stop at Clyde Butcher's Photo Gallery on the way and pay a visit to Smallwood Store in Chokoloskee, about ten minutes south of Everglades City. The museum is on the National Register of Historic Places and was once a post office, general store and Indian trading post founded by pioneer Ted Smallwood in 1906.