The girls at Fishnet Seafood are always smiling when I walk through their door. They're usually slinging fresh fish into big pots of boiling grease and bantering back and forth about some morsel of local gossip. And on any given day there's a steady supply of fresh whiting and croaker crackling with a crispy dredged batter. These offerings alone would make it worthy of a stop next time you happen by the Savannah Highway outpost, but the fried crabs — and we mean whole fried hard crabs — are a revelation to behold.
Most people I query have never heard of frying up hard crabs, but there's a smattering of places about town that do just that. It's a simple dish, but one honed with a deep local tradition, including fishmongers who do double duty as take-out kitchen cooks next to large baskets of live blue crabs. They are as delicious as they are hard to find. Fried crabs, as done in the Lowcountry, are not overly complicated. All you really need is hot grease, live crabs, and some seasoned flour to dredge them in. They've likely been in the local vernacular for some time. Basic riffs on the idea surround how the crab is cleaned before frying and whether you steam them ahead of time. The best are cleaned raw, dredged in flour, deep fried until golden and crispy, and served hot with a spicy garlic butter drizzled all over. Think fried shrimp and Alaskan crab legs all wrapped up in a garlicky, melted-butter heart attack.
Around Charleston, the dish seems to attract a decidedly African-American crowd, and North Charleston makes a strong case as an epicenter of fried crab cookery. There, only a few miles apart, you'll find Marvin's Seafood and Charlie Brown Seafood duking it out for the heavyweight title. Hop through the door of Marvin's on a busy Friday afternoon, and the folks will be 10-deep at the counter, jostling to get to the cash register that guards the grease and a thousand Styrofoam trays, stacked and ready for the hot, sizzling crustaceans. A full crab will set you back only $1.99.
Options are few, but secrets are closely guarded, mostly those associated with the sauces and their fiery heat. As one customer once told me, "My wife always cooks them at home, but she can't never get the spice right." And it's the spice that seems to divide devotees between Marvin's and Charlie Brown. All garlic butters are not created equally.
The handwritten signs at Charlie Brown advertise the cooked seafood, including some noteworthy "Jacksonville-style" garlic crabs and spicy stewed conch; one sign straightforwardly announces the fiery seasoning choices: mild, hot, mild garlic, hot garlic, and KP Hot Temper.
"What's KP Hot Temper?" I asked the lady next to me. She shot me a sideways glance and said under her breath, "Well, I've never had it, but I hear that it's not unlike the Swamp Fire."
I remembered a small sign at Marvin's that alluded to the cryptic "Swamp Fire," which set off my own long and rather painful love affair with the incendiary world of North Charleston fried crabs, doused with various butter concoctions and sprinkled with pure fire. But spicy or not, they're fun to eat.
You can "pick" the meat of a fried crab in the traditional sense — when prepared this way, the meat becomes remarkably plump and juicy — but the true marvel lies in the transformation of all those pesky little "fins" of shell that divide the meat throughout the body. Once crispy, a great fried crab can be eaten almost in its entirety, chomped all the way down to the hard bottom of the carapace. Most of the now crispy "fins" can be crunched up right along with the delicious meat.
Fried crabs aren't restaurant food, which is why you can only find them at take-out counters. You'll need an ample supply of napkins and maybe even a bib, and if you ask around the clientele at Charlie Brown and Marvin's, you'll find that everyone's grandmother made them a little different. It's back porch food on a sunny spring day with family. Or if you're like me, you'll inevitably devour a couple of crabs in the car before you even get out of the parking lot.
To do this right, you must start with live crabs. We clean them while still alive and kicking, a task and technique that takes practice to avoid getting pinched. Rookies should probably stab them in the head with an icepick first to avoid the claws. We've called for Old Bay as a seasoning, but in the tradition of Marvin's and Charlie Brown, your favorite spice blend could be a winner. Locals also have suggested soaking the cleaned crabs in garlic butter before dredging.
• A 10-inch cast iron Dutch oven half full of fresh peanut oil
• A dozen live blue crabs
• Salt and pepper
• Old Bay seasoning to taste
• ½ cup all-purpose flour
• ½ cup corn starch
• 1 pound unsalted butter
• 4-6 large fresh garlic cloves, peeled
• Hot chili flakes (optional)
Clean the crabs by removing the top shell, skirt flap, internal organs, and lungs (but leave the tomalley intact) and break each crab down the middle into two halves. Season them liberally with salt, pepper, and Old Bay.
Begin bringing the oil to 350 degrees Fahrenheit and mix the flour, corn starch, and more Old Bay to taste in a deep bowl. When your oil is hot, dredge each crab half, tap off the excess, and fry, two or three at a time, in the hot oil. They are ready when golden brown, in about four or five minutes.
While they cook, melt the butter in a small saucepan with the smashed-up garlic cloves until the butter begins to slightly brown. If you like it hot, toss in a small handful of your favorite dried chilies along with the garlic.
Serve the crabs piping hot. Drain them on City Paper-lined platters and dip into the hot garlic butter as you eat.