I first began eating lunch at La Tropicana Café on 7th Avenue in Ybor City in 1973. I was in high school and working part-time in the family’s truck sales business driving a parts delivery truck. One of our truck salesmen Braxton Harrell would ask me to stop off at La Tropicana, if my deliveries took me through the neighborhood near lunch time, to pick up some deviled crabs (he called them belly bombs). I immediately became hooked on them, and before long I was making sure my delivery route took me by La Tropicana at least two or three times a week.
In case anyone thinks that a deviled crab is simply crabmeat wrapped in dough and deep fried, read this list of ingredients (from a Columbia Restaurant recipe, courtesy The Gasparilla Cookbook). The dough: stale American bread (soaked and then squeezed dry), stale Cuban bread (ground fine and sifted), all mixed with paprika and salt, and then refrigerated for a couple hours. The crab filling: onions, green bell pepper, cloves of garlic, crushed red hot pepper, bay leaves, sugar, salt, tomato paste, and of course fresh blue crab claw meat.
According to Cigar City Magazine (an Ybor City history publication), Tampa’s first deviled crabs were sold in the early 1920’s from a street cart in Ybor City, by Tampa native Francisco Oscar Miranda. He was known to everyone as the Deviled Crab Man. Miranda made his deviled crabs daily, with essentially the same ingredients listed above, and sold them from his cart for three decades until his passing in 1953. So what’s the “deviled” part about? It’s about heat. Traditionally deviled crabs are split and doused with hot sauce, plus they already have hot red pepper flakes in the crab filling mixture.
La Tropicana Café 1822 East 7th Avenue, Ybor City, Tampa (813) 247-4040
Bibi Menendez opened La Tropicana Café on the corner of 7th Avenue and 19th Street in Ybor City (Tampa’s Historic Latin District) in 1963. Today it occupies the same unassuming one-story, barrel-tiled-roof building. Nothing has changed. Inside it looks exactly as it did when I was a frequent patron in the early 1970’s. In one corner there is still a table, ornately-carved and surrounded by comfortable leather chairs, with a plaque that reads “Reserved for Roland Manteiga” even though Mr. Manteiga passed away in 1998. Roland Manteiga was the publisher and editor of La Gaceta, Tampa’s “Three-Language” newspaper. When I would come in for my deviled crabs, he was always there at his table, usually accompanied by BiBi Menendez, and usually with some local politician, perhaps the mayor, maybe even the governor. Manteiga was one of the most politically-influential people in the state. BiBi Menendez even installed a private telephone at the table for Manteiga. Something else that hasn’t changed: the deviled crabs are still the best I’ve ever tasted.
Four more places to get great deviled crabs in Tampa:
Brocato’s Sandwich Shop 5021 East Columbus Drive (813) 248-9977
Aguila Sandwich Shop 3200 West Hillsborough Avenue (813) 876-4022
Columbia Restaurant 2117 East 7th Avenue, Ybor City (813) 248-4961
Big Ray’s Fish Camp 6116 Interbay Boulevard (813) 605-3615