Florida Food: In Search of the Perfect Deviled Crab

There are a lot of Florida food favorites such as Key Lime Pie and Stone Crab Claws, but no food can cause more debate than the humble Deviled Crab.

A deviled crab (called croqueta de jaiba in Spanish) is a large crab meat croquette beloved by both Latin and non-Latin, rich and poor throughout the Tampa Bay area and across Florida.

The deviled crab was created in Ybor City in the 1920’s during a long cigar-workers strike and the deviled crab, made from local blue crab meat, day-old Cuban bread, and Cuban-style chilau sauce, became almost over night the cheap lunch break meal of choice.  The food spread to non-Latin locals and then to winter visitors.  Today, some tourists seek out deviled crabs for their first local dish in Florida.

floridatraveler deviled crab and Cuban sandwich (no mayo)

A deviled crab & Cuban sandwich (no mayo)

A good deviled crab should have a thick enough shell so it can be held up and eaten by one hand, the original way the immigrant workers eat this meal.  Putting a fork to one is unacceptable.  If you must have a fork: go back to your Maryland crab cakes. But the cake should be a golf ball size chuck of crab meat inside or you will also feel the wrath of true deviled crab enthusiasts.

My wife’s family would drive across Tampa to the Seabreeze Restaurant on  Causeway Boulevard on McKay Bay just to buy their popular deviled crabs.  I even remember people loading up with deviled crabs to take into the Causeway Drive-in down the road.

When this seafood institution closed down, there was panic among its regulars. Knowing the Seabreeze name was meaningful, several small restaurants were started by former employees in Brandon and Ybor City, but for whatever reason they weren’t the same.

floridatraveler seabreeze restaurant

 A New Seabreeze Restaurant in a Historic Tour Bus

In the last few years a new recreation of Seabreeze was opened on North Boulevard, near the west side of the Hillsborough River.  The Seabreeze Deviled Crabs and Seafood is hardly a dining experience.  People come because the deviled crabs are made like the old restaurant by a former employee.

Besides an open-aired stand selling live blue crabs in tanks, this Seabreeze makes its deviled crabs and Cuban sandwiches in a converted tour bus once used by the Weeki Wachee tourist attraction.  The classic bus was found in a dump and restored as a classic food wagon.

It seems fitting to me that deviled crab making is located in a mobile food spot since that is how the Florida dish was first sold in the 1920’s.

About floridatraveler

Historian and travel writer M. C. Bob Leonard makes the Sunshine State his home base. Besides serving as content editor for several textbook publishers and as an Emeritus college professor, he moderates the FHIC at www.floridahistory.org
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2 Responses to Florida Food: In Search of the Perfect Deviled Crab

  1. Awesome post and history of Ybor City and Tampa Bay! My family is devoted to Crab Chilau! Though we usually buy our deviled crabs from Carmin’s in Ybor City we love serving them with our traditional Crab Chilau. I recently launched a concentrated version of Chilau Sauce so my friends and family could consistently make the dish, life hasn’t been the same since. Grear post!


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