(Luckily for me, I'd flown back north the Thanksgiving weekend, so I got to go along too.)
Late in the morning of the Friday after Thanksgiving, we ventured forth into the great unknown like the American pioneers. Our path led us West as we followed the footsteps of those early settlers towards the lush and craggy California coast. My father's SUV blazed the trail, darting ahead of our caravan like a frontier scout. Behind us, my aunt's minivan lumbered slowly and steadily, the Conestoga wagon carrying the women, children, and my grandfather. It was our manifest destiny to procure a bountiful harvest of plump, meaty crabs, and we boldly rushed forward to meet it.
Our first stop was the beautiful seaside town of Santa Cruz, roughly an hour south of our home in Saratoga. Although we'd never been there before in search of crab, we hoped that the Pier at Santa Cruz, next to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, would prove fruitful. Unfortunately, all we found were tourist trap shops with their high prices and mediocre products.
The Princeton Seafood Company offered a dim ray of hope, particularly when we saw one of the fishmongers prepping and cooking live Dungeness crab right outside the store.
Unfortunately, the crabs were priced higher than you'd find them in Asian supermarkets, and the store was only offering them pre-cooked that day.
Cooked crab simply wouldn't do, no matter how freshly caught it was. Crab meat begins to lose its sweetness and flavor once it's been cooked. The best way to eat crab is straight from the pot to the plate with no stops in between. We needed to find live Dungeness crabs.
After lunch (which I'll cover in a separate post), we turned our wheels towards Half Moon Bay, two hours north of Santa Cruz along the scenic Pacific Coast Highway. Our target was Pillar Point Harbor, home of several seafood buyers and wholesalers, and home of a large crab-fishing community. The fishermen at Pillar Point had never let us down.
With traffic from the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk and several stops to take in the sights, we arrived fairly late in the afternoon. The main pier at Pillar Point Harbor was lined with countless fishing boats, some only recently returned with their briny harvests. We immediately headed for the end of the main pier, where the factors for Morning Star Fisheries and Three Captains had their offices. At that time of day, we knew that the wholesalers were our best bet for crabs. Sadly, the offices were closed when we got there, and workers had already begun loading merchandise onto the trucks of buyers for transport to other parts of the state. One of the largest set of trucks was for the 99 Ranch Market chain of stores. If you bought live Dungeness crabs from a 99 Ranch Market recently, chances are it came from Half Moon Bay.
Luckily for us, we were able to find several familiar whiteboards still up bearing messages like this one, advertising Dungeness crab available on board the Betty K.
The few crabs the Betty K had left that day weren't large enough to satisfy my grandfather, although they were still able to gather a sizeable crowd of hungry crab lovers.
No, the real Holy Grail that afternoon was found on the Tonita, where the line of crab crazy locals was twice the size of the one in front of the Betty K. The Tonita had come in late that day, so still had a number of gargantuan crabs left. Furthermore, the captain was offering his usual special of $3 a pound if the total purchase exceeded five pounds. That was almost half the price the other boats were asking for live Dungeness crab, and one quarter of the price charged by the supermarkets. We bought fifteen pounds.
On the way home, tired and road weary, I saw something that made me realize how much more advanced Northern California is compared to Southern California. That's right. It's a Caffino, a NorCal chain of drive-though espresso and coffee shops. Just the thing for a Silicon Valley IT worker facing a long morning commute. I love Southern California, but I miss my childhood home.
The next morning, we feasted on the fruits de mer of our labors.
Live Dungeness crab + 5 quarts of boiling water + 1/4 cup of sea salt = Yum!
You can add the juice of one lemon to the boiling mix if you like. Don't worry. If you put them in the freezer for a few minutes beforehand, they essentially go to sleep and never wake up. It's the kindest way to send them on.
Fifteen minutes later, we started filling up the feeding trough. Don't they look gorgeous?
Some ramekins of black rice vinegar, the Chinese balsamic, seasoned with diced garlic or leeks, and it was time to dig in! Pretty good eatin' for what were essentially giant sea spiders.
Pillar Point Harbor - Get there early in the afternoon and head straight for the fishing boats. They've got the freshest product at the lowest prices. I highly recommend the Tonita. Our family has been buying from them for years, and they've always offered an excellent selection at unbeatable prices.
Pillar Point Harbor
1 Johnson Pier
Half Moon Bay, CA 94019