Pep’s Stone Crab

As we were making our way towards the John Dickinson State Park, we were keeping an eye out for a place to have dinner before getting to our vacation accomodation.

The Waffle Jr. had just woken up and was, also, eager for dinner. We made an infructuous stop at Duffy’s Sports Grill on Indiantown road in Jupiter (The parking lot was full, it was Friday Night, it was a Sports grill – we though better than bringing in a starving baby).

We kept going North on Highway 1, until a colourful sign attracted our attention. We were at Pep’s Island Grill in Tequesta, Florida.

It being Florida, we decided that despite the cool evening, we had to have our first vacation meal outside. Pep’s has a very large deck, surrounded by palm trees and going all the way around the corner. There is also a Tiki bar at the back. As we set up, we noticed how the interior seating was not very appealing, looking more like a roadside diner, but the patio was certainly more interesting. And considering the time of day, the road traffic noise was very limited.

There were three other tables occupied on the deck, but we had to go inside to indicate our presence – it seems that no one had noticed us, even though at least two staffers came to look after their tables. Hopefully, this was not a sign of the service to come.

Pep’s Menu features $10 Real Deals: A starter, an entrée and a dessert – the selection includes Jumbo Crab Cakes, Lamp Chops and Chicken Picata. Not a bad deal at all, but we took a pass.

Melissa went for the Dozen Shrimp, half grilled, half tempura ($13.50). With her dish came two sides of her choice, she went for the Lobster Mac and Cheese and the Garlic Mash.

But first, a starter was included and she got the Bimini Salad.

I can only assume that this salad is from the Bahamas, Bimini being the closest point in the Bahamas to mainland USA – about 80 kms East of Miami.

On a bed of greens were some tomatoes, green peppers, mango, pecans, with a honey poppy seed dressing. Interesting, different.

The shrimp were very good, especially the grilled ones, lightly seasoned and greatly smoked. They were cooked to perfection and simply melted in the mouth.

The tempura shrimp were also quite good – golden, crispy, yet tender on the inside.

Both types were good with lemon, or with the cocktail sauce but the tartare sauce that also came with was heavy and masked the shrimp’s delicate flavour.

As for the sides, the garlic mash were correct, but the star was definetely the lobster mac and cheese. Creamy, with good chunks of lobster and a bread crumb and parmesan topping, it was quite good. It would make a very rich main if it were available as such.

I ignored the main menu and had to try a Florida Delicacy currently available at Pep’s: I ordered a pound and a half of Florida Stone Crab claws, medium size ($25.90). They came with two sides as well, and I picked the coleslaw and the Grilled Asparagus with Chinola Sauce.

But I, too, had a starter included, and I elected to go with the Bahamian Seafood Chowder.

The broth was quite garlicky and spicy – they used hot pepper sauce liberaly. It had a strong tomato flavour, but it was thicker than a Manathan Clam Chowder. In it were shrimp, lobster and white fish, maybe grouper?

There was, however, no conch in it – a typical ingredient in Bahamian cuisine – but it wasn’t advertised as a conch chowder, so no one can actually blame Pep’s here.

The chowder was topped with cream, which is always a nice touch.

My sides were also both quite good.

The grilled asparagus were perfectly cooked, with some char marks and a nice crunch.

The Chinola sauce, which is made with Passion fruit, was a nice substitute from the regular hollandaise sauce – but it was made with plenty of butter too. The coleslaw, or Island slaw as they call it, was creamy, with two types of cabbage and green apples for some sweetness. In my opinion, they could go easy on the dressing and it wouldn’t hurt the dish.

All sides, by the way, can be ordered à la carte for only $1.90, which is quite cheap.

And now, to the highlight of the meal, which I had to have despite all the other appealing offerings on the menu: the Florida Stone Crab.

The Florida stone crab is a fairly small crab, somewhere around 5 inches, found in the Western Atlantic Coast all the way up to Connecticut. A light brownish red with gray spots, they have large and claws with black tips.

The Florida stone crab loses its limbs easily to escape from predators, but they will grow back, usually in about a year. Each time, the new claw grows larger. The stone crabs are therefore harvested by removing one or both claws from the crustacean, which is then returned to its habitat where it will regrow the lost claws – a process that can be repeated 4 times in the animal’s life. To be kept by the fishermen, claws must be of a certain length and they can both legally be removed at the same time if they are big enough. The claws are cooked immidiately after harvest, and then chilled. They don’t keep very long – a few days at most unless frozen properly – which basically guarantees freshness.

Pep’s was offering the claws in medium or large sizes, and could be served cold with a mustard sauce or hot with garlic butter. I decided to go with the cold ones, and they arrived promptly, partly cracked, on a bed of ice.

The sweet-tasting flesh of the stone crab claws was delicious. I sometimes dipped some in the mustard sauce, dijon-based and mild, or simply with a squirt of lemon – or even right out of the claw. The texture was firm, but tender. I had to work hard to get the meat out of some knuckle joints, but it was worth the fight – this time.

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