It was a recent Saturday morning and my hangover was prohibiting much movement from where I found myself, which at the time was the Santa Barbara Wharf—not the worst place to be immobile and hungover on a cool, clear, late winter day. The night before I'd been beaten badly at pool in a State Street bar backroom where you can still smoke cigarettes, and been offered meth by a transient sleeping in a tree. Regarding the meth, I had demurred, but that didn't mean I wasn't up for a little adventure, Santa Barbara style—which was about to present itself to me in the person of Paul Teall and Paul Teall's rare, fire engine-red kelp crabs.
I'd describe Teall as an old-fashioned seaman, a fisherman's fisherman—but that's probably because I don't know much about fishing or fishermen. He has rough hands and an easy smile and captains a hundred-year-old boat that he takes out to the Channel Islands the long way, a 6-hour trip each leg during which, according to some cursory Instagram snooping, he prefers to listen to old-time country and western music.
Teall spends four full days a week at sea, returning to the mainland each Friday with a haul of fish and crab that this year—for the first time in a dozen years, Teall says—includes a great deal of hard-to-find wild caught red kelp crabs. The crabs, which Teall calls "dragon crabs," are distinguished by their four-pointed carapace, which makes them look more than a little like baby crustacean Batmans, and their shells are fire-engine red. These, Teall puts on ice in a chest under a pop-up tent on the pier at the wharf and offers for sale each Saturday morning—$3/pound for whole crabs, $5/pound for claws.
"We had more this week than we've seen and we've been seeing them for four to five months pretty heavy," Teall told me.
On a good trip, Teall and his deckhand Taylor bring home over 100 pounds of red kelp crabs. Teall Family Seafood is currently the only source for the hard-to-find crustacean that I could find. The crabs are generally not commercially harvested or available wholesale or retail, but Teall sells them directly to consumers at the wharf during an informal market that local fishermen set up from 7 to 11 AM each Saturday.
Not wanting to miss out on something this special, I spent all the cash I had purchasing 5 pounds of the deep red, hard-shelled claws and packed them with ice into a styrofoam cooler I picked up at the wharf liquor store for the trip home to LA, visions of a Dragon Crab Louie dinner dancing in my head.
As scarce as this red kelp crab is (more on that shortly), it has made some recent appearances on menus in LA restaurants, thanks to the subscription-based community seafood program Dock to Dish, which connects "small-scale" (their term) fishermen like Teall and wild seafood like the red kelp crab with local restaurants through a kind of seafood CSA.
In spite of our country's nearly unrivaled access to wild, sustainable seafood in our coastal waters, the American seafood diet consists almost entirely of imported fish—as much as 90 percent, according to a recent count. Dock to Dish represents a grassroots attempt to address this incongruity by emphasizing supply instead of demand. The program, now on both coasts, hooks chefs up with a certain pre-determined amount of seafood (measured in pounds) each week, focusing on whatever is wild, sustainable, and immediately available to fishermen like Teall.
"Dock to Dish allows us to highlight new species that have gone underused," said Sarah Rathbone, founder of Dock to Dish. "By doing that we also reduce pressure on the more common 'sexier' species."
Michael Cimarusti, the chef at Providence, receives 600 pounds of seafood each week through Dock to Dish, which supplies the Michelin-starred fine-dining restaurant as well as Connie and Ted's, the New England-style clam shack, and Cape Seafood and Provisions, the fish market and casual lunch stand. Cimarusti has used the red kelp crabs he received through Dock to Dish in an amuse-bouche at Providence: a small crab meat dish with makrut lime leaf mayonnaise that's wrapped in pickled daikon radish and garnished with chives.
"They were quite sweet," Cimarusti said of the red kelp crabs. "Round, nutty—everything you look for when you're eating crab."
After serving it as an amuse at Providence, Cimarusti thought the red kelp crab might work best in a crab louie dish at Connie and Ted's. The red kelp crab's meat is crumblier than its commercially fished counterparts, and the relatively flimsy muscle structure lends itself more to a loose salad dish than a small, precisely composed amuse, Cimarusti says. And besides, the kelp crab's hard shell and the meat's tendency to stick to its insides makes it very labor-intensive to pick.
"Aside from the novelty aspect, they do taste very good," Cimarusti said. "but they're not easy to work with."
Or, as Santa Barbara sea urchin fisherman Stephanie Mutz of Sea Stephanie Fish put it, "There's just no fucking meat in them."
The kelp crab's scarcity over the years, and its recent sudden appearance in the Southern California waters where Teall fishes, could be chalked up to weather changes in the area brought by El Nino. Ocean temperatures have been on the rise over the last couple years and storms have caused kelp beds to become uprooted. Along with the vegetation, species have also been on the move more than usual, including, potentially, the hard-to-find red kelp crab.
But what exactly we mean by "dragon crab" or "kelp crab" is itself something of a moving target. While "Dungeness crab" refers to a specific species, the rarer, wild varieties go by colloquial monikers that might be used as catch-alls to refer to several species. The crabs I bought at Teall's stand on the wharf, which he called "Southern kelp crabs" or "dragon crabs," were a deep red color, with long, hard-shelled arms and that Batman-esque carapace. That description fits best with the pugettia producta species, a.k.a. "Northern kelp crab," according to Adam Wall, the collections manager of crustacea at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles—with one key difference.
"Normally the Northern kelp crab is green in color," Wall said.
Given the waters he fishes in, Teall's traps would generally, over the decades, have been more likely to catch the taliepus nuttallii, a.k.a. the "Southern kelp crab," which is usually red in color, according to Wall. But the Southern kelp crab does not have the pointed Batman-esque carapace that distinguishes Teall's "dragon crabs," which led to some confusion over this rare catch. It seemed to be some kind of hybrid species. Dock to Dish even mistakenly labeled and marketed Teall's crabs as "Southern kelp crabs" before discovering they were in fact the Northern genus, but presenting in an unusual color.
"They survive off of the kelp that they're living on, so their color matches whatever color kelp they eat," Wall said.
Southern California represents a "faunal break," the geographical limits of many species' habitat spreading from here to points both north and south, according to Wall. Pugettia producta is more commonly found north of here, and taliepus nuttallii is more commonly found to the south. Likely due to ocean upwelling from El Nino conditions, the Northern kelp crabs found themselves in the Channel Island waters Teall tends to fish in, where they survived on a diet of exclusively red kelp, and thus, their shells turned fire-truck red.
"And they get even brighter and more beautiful when you boil them," Teall told me.
Those words ringing in my head the whole hungover drive back to LA, once home, I popped the cork on a bottle of orange wine, poured some out for my guests, and set about following the fisherman's preparation for red kelp crab meat:
- Put a big pot of water over high heat and prepare an ice bath in a large bowl.
- When the pot reaches a hard boil, drop the claws in.
- When the pot comes back to a boil, set a timer for twelve minutes.
- When the timer goes off, throw the claws straight into an ice bath.
- Crack the claws and pull the meat out.
I soon found myself thinking that Michael Cimarusti's observation about the red kelp crab being "not easy to work with" was either a polite understatement or grave underestimation. As I dug into the resistant claws with spoon, skewer, and fingernail, I found myself marveling at the thought that Providence would probably have to double its tasting menu prices just to pay for the hours of prep that go into this red kelp crab. The process was slow and arduous even with three of us working on the pick. Each and every fiber of the muscle seemed to cling to the inside of the beautiful, bright red shells with dear life, and it was hours of work over a newspaper-covered, soaked, shell-flecked table top. By the time we were ready to plate our red kelp Crab Louie salads, we must have gone through two more bottles of wine.
I'd completely forgotten about my hangover.
The red kelp crab is available from Teall Family Seafood at the Santa Barbara Wharf Saturdays from 7 to 11 AM, for as long as Paul Teall can catch them. The catch seems to be diminishing, so head there soon!