Thursday, January 28, 2016

Seabreeze Food Trolley and the Devil Crab

To the best of my knowledge, the devil crab is the only culinary creation whose lineage traces back solely to the Tampa Bay area. Sure, we're known for our Cuban sandwiches, but Miami has those, too (and they say theirs is the authentic version), and you can talk about indigenous seafood like mullet and crab, but that's more of a generic Florida thing. Although its origins are somewhat murky (as is the case with most good foodstuffs), the devil crab is believed to have arrived on the local scene in the 1920s as a street food for hungry cigar factory workers in Ybor City. One of the earliest and well-known vendors of this tasty snack (basically a croquette stuffed with a spicy mixture of shredded blue crab and sofrito, a condiment with its roots in traditional Spanish cuisine) was Victor Licata, who operated a seafood shack beginning around 1925 on the 22nd Street Causeway in what's now a heavily-industrial area of urban Tampa. Called Seabreeze by the Bay, the shack eventually morphed into a restaurant best known for its devil crabs, which were churned out daily by the truckload to satisfy the public's appetite for them. Over the years, the neighborhood changed and the dining operation subsequently closed in 2001, forcing hungry Tampanians to look elsewhere to get their fix.

The story doesn't end there, however. The Richards family (who were the last owners of the restaurant) continued to run a catering business and eventually acquired an old seafood market on North Boulevard (2111 N. Blvd., to be exact) in Tampa Heights to sell their freshly-caught crabs, shrimp, and fish from the Alafia River. As caretakers of the original Seabreeze devil crab recipe, they began selling them again, only now in much smaller quantities.

When the opportunity to purchase an old trolley that could be repurposed into a food truck presented itself, the family jumped on it, parking the beast in the weedy lot next door and rechristening it as the Seabreeze Food Trolley. The trolley offers a slimmed-down version of the bygone Seabreeze by the Bay menu (mostly fried fish), including those beloved devil crabs.

If it's a nice day out (as it was when I visited on a Friday afternoon), there are few better places to sit at a picnic table overlooking the nearby Hillsborough River and munch on a foam container full of fried goodies.  The clam strips and fries were very good, while the hush puppies had a bit of an odd flavor that made me think of dryer sheets for some reason.  I also enjoyed the house cole slaw and small cup of strawberry cake (desserts are free on Friday) that accompanied my order.

As for the famous devil crab? Well, I found it to be on a par with Brocato's version, which is the other iconic devil crab maker in town, that is, to say, good, but not necessarily destination-worthy.  The filling had an adequate amount of heat to it and the exterior was nicely crispy, certainly crafted with a little more experience and care than the behemoth mini-footballs at Brocato's.  If the neighborhood surrounding the seafood market and trolley (which is largely vacant) continues to gentrify like nearby Higland Avenue (home to Ulele), I see greater things in the future for the Richards family and their heritage operation...

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