Food by VICE

Santa Barbara's Most Sought-After Crabs Outlived an Oil Spill

Steve Escobar is California's premiere crabber and he's not letting 100,000 gallons of spilled crude oil faze him, or his pristine 5,000-pound rock crab harvest.

by Shannon Kelley
Jul 7 2015, 10:00pm

Photo via Flickr user Andrew Sutherland

It's a big day at the Santa Barbara Harbor. Vacation season is in full swing, the July 4th holiday looms, and the unseasonably muggy weather has combined with the brine-flavored air to coat everything with the unmistakable saltiness of summer at the shore.

But the real news is that the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) just lifted the 138-square-mile fishing closure that was one of the many nasty side effects of the highly nasty rupture of a Plains All American pipeline near Refugio Beach, which released over 100,000 gallons of crude oil onto the Santa Barbara County coast in May. But most of the tourists in the forever-clogged queue at famed seafood staple Brophy Brothers likely wouldn't be able to tell whether the crab for their crab cakes was caught locally or not.

READ: Stop Eating Seafood Out of Season

Despite that, this development is a great relief for many of the fishermen whose boats bob along the dock, providing ambiance—and often sustenance—to those chowder-seeking masses. Among them is Steve Escobar, whose specialties—rock crab, spiny lobster and sea snail, as well as finfish—regularly take him into those waters.

In the weeks since the spill, Escobar's had to scramble to make up for the hit the closure landed on his bottom line. He, along with many other fishermen, including his famous uni-diving girlfriend Stephanie Mutz, was diverted into further, more congested quarters. The hours were even longer and more difficult—yet resulted in smaller catches.

In fact, it was Escobar the CDFW tapped to accompany the research team that recently traveled to the impact area, in order to trap several animals for lab analysis that would determine whether they were safe to eat. On June 29, the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment officially delivered the green light.

Portrait of Steve Escobar taken by the author

After the announcement, I met Escobar on his 40-foot seafood ship, the Ocean Pearl, as he prepped to head out for one of his 22-hour fishing trips. Escobar, who has owned Newport Beach's 124-year-old Dory Fleet Fish Market since 1991, was eager to get back into the areas that were closed. After the enforced downtime, the waters were likely to be flush with critters, but satisfying his rabidly devoted customers' collective appetite is a challenge even under the best of circumstances.

How rabid? The devout are known to set up their lawn chairs starting around 3:00 in the morning in anticipation of his Saturday morning appearances; arriving to find a line of 200 people is, he says, pretty standard.

The Dory Fleet enthusiasts are an adventurous bunch. While slurping up an urchin's golden family jewels was once solely the province of epicurean daredevils, nowadays the uni caught and sold at the market by Mutz is an easy sell. As are Escobar's snails, a cross between clams and abalone that he recommends swapping for clams in seafood stews, sautéeing, grilling on skewers, or slicing thinly on a mandoline for ceviche. He goes full food-geek when describing a dish one customer's wife put together, a Vietnamese-influenced preparation that involved grinding the snails together with pork, flavoring the mixture with ginger and lemongrass, and steaming it in banana leaves: "It is so amazing! Amazing! That kind of stuff—thinking outside of the box, that's when it really, really gets fun."

On a busy weekend, 4,000, 5,000 pounds of crab, it'll go just like that," he says, snapping his fingers. The challenge is catching it.

These digressions into recipe-talk are hardly unusual: Escobar's combined love of cooking and his passion for elevating the overlooked realm of the extraordinary has led him to cut back on fishing for several years in order to make time to complete Santa Barbara City College's Culinary Program.

Currently, he's developing a cookbook that he hopes will teach people how to treat sea snails, as well as other underutilized species.

But crab remains—pardon the pun—king. In an observation that will surprise no one who has hosted a crab feed, Escobar marvels at how quickly the stuff goes. "On a busy weekend, 4,000, 5,000 pounds of crab, it'll go just like that," he says, snapping his fingers. "It's crazy how crab just disappears. The challenge is catching it."

The other challenge, of course, is convincing people—his Dory Fleet regulars excepted—that the rock crab of California's coast is as tasty as other, more celebrated varieties. Maybe even more so.

Asked why California's rock crab hasn't yet earned the same fame as other varieties, Escobar draws a long inhale before ultimately chalking it up to the stubborn tyranny of tradition, the inertia of the familiar.

To understand the difference, he says, "You really have to try it. Like, people who have only had Dungeness think Dungeness is the best. We have this argument with people from the East Coast about lobster; everybody says East Coast lobster is the best and we say ours is the best—and ours certainly fetches a much higher price than theirs does. but really, if you get it fresh from the ocean wherever it grows and you eat it fresh, that's the best."

Freshness may rule, but he's Team Rock Crab all the way. He's so confident in his product that, while at culinary school, he put his pride and livelihood on the line with a good old-fashioned taste test.

"I did this meat program up at school, and for two classes we did king crab, blue crab, Dungeness crab, a bunch of different crabs; we did a blind taste test and the local rock crab everyone voted to be the best tasting," he says, with a humble satisfaction. "I would bet most people, if they tasted Dungeness crab lump meat versus our crab, they would like our crab better. It's not as abundant, but you just need to hunt it out and know how to treat it."

As far as his recommendations for how to treat it? He cites a chef's golden rule: "Don't overcook it! You want it to be fresh and alive when you cook it, and once it's cooked, I like it chilled and cracked, or you can reserve it and use it for some other dish if you're disciplined enough." Those in possession of said discipline might be interested in his award-winning crab cakes recipe.

He pauses, then opts to confess,"I usually just wolf it all down, though."

Santa Barbara
California crabs
Dory Fleet
rock crabs
west coast seafood