SECTION 1: CRABS
We love our Maryland crabs, like these from Conrad's Seafood, pictured, though other stateside spots merit praise, too. To make sure you're dining local, always ask which waters your sweeties were fished from.
At this convivial sit-down outpost of his popular Parkville seafood market, waterman Tony Conrad serves up some of the best hard shells around: plump, heavy, and certified True Blue. On a spring evening visit, we were crestfallen to find that all the Maryland soft shells had sold out, but we happily consoled ourselves with a pile of hard shells and a lobster pot pie from the encyclopedic, sea-centric menu. Lesson learned? When the local crabs are running, the early bird catches the crustacean. 9654 Belair Rd., Perry Hall, 410-529-3474
This 44-year-old family-run stalwart is clearly for in-the-know locals who flock to Dundalk for seafood. We say there's no need to lollygag over lobster tails or orange roughy. Go straight for the famed eight-ounce crab cake. (Costas sources our beloved blues from the Texas Gulf, which means they serve colossal crabs even in the off-season.) Feeling adventurous? The crab cake gyro packed into a pita with diced tomatoes and onions and drizzled with tzatziki gets an “A” for originality. Wash it down with a Boh, and welcome to Bawlmer, hon. 4100 Northpoint Blvd., 410-477-1975
Maybe it's the legendary Lexington Market, with its hustle and bustle. Maybe it's the guys behind the counter, who've seen it all. Or maybe the appeal is the story itself: a family company, dating back to 1886. Whatever “it” is, the crab cake is worth the hype—a softball-sized mound of jumbo-lump meat, creamy and sweet, and served on a Styrofoam plate with lettuce, tomato, and a pack of Saltines. No frills—just the melt-in-your-mouth pleasure of a Maryland treasure. Sure, the tourists love it, but don't call yourself a local 'til you've had one, too. 203 N. Paca St., 410-727-4898
It's only fitting that some of Baltimore's best crab cakes are served in a hon-worthy Lauraville pub. Koco's friendly atmosphere and expert waitstaff provide the perfect atmosphere in which to enjoy these humongous, jumbo-lump dreams, which have a hint of creaminess and just a tad of filler. Go for the platter with slaw, piping-hot fries, and tomatoes dusted with Old Bay and you've got yourself the quintessential Charm City crab-cake experience. Don't forget to make a reservation, though. This is everyone else's idea of the classic crab-cake experience, too. 4301 Harford Rd., 410-426-3519
New York City has Carnegie Deli. Philadelphia has Jim's Steaks. Baltimore has Mr. Bill's Terrace Inn—so synonymous with quality crab that Baltimore-Oriole-turned-restaurateur Rick Dempsey and Congressman Dutch Ruppersberger man their mallets here. Blue crabs come in many manifestations—stuffed into mushroom caps, topping chicken breasts, and, of course, coddled into cakes, but it's the steamed-to-order hard shells—hot and heavy—that are more than worth their salt, or in this case, Old Bay. We're not the only ones saying so: LocalEats.com put Mr. Bill's in the top two percent of over 600,000 local restaurants in the U.S. 200 Eastern Blvd., Essex, 410-687-5994
This crab fluff recipe from the 25th anniversary edition of Chesapeake Bay Cooking with John Shields feels lighter than a crab cake, thanks to the fried batter. “It’s from Miss Alice, whose family had a place called Harrison’s Chesapeake House on the Eastern Shore,” Shields says. “She was the unofficial first lady of Tilghman Island.”
1 pound lump or backfin crabmeat,
1/3 cup mayonnaise
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon dry mustard
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup fine dry Italian breadcrumbs
Batter: 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon Old Bay
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon celery seed
1/4 teaspoon lemon-pepper seasoning
2 eggs, beaten
2 tablespoons mayonnaise
1/2 teaspoon prepared mustard
1 cup milk
Vegetable oil, for frying
Place crabmeat in a bowl. Set aside. Mix egg, mayonnaise, Worcestershire, dry mustard, salt, and pepper in a bowl. Pour egg mixture over crabmeat and sprinkle with breadcrumbs. Gently mix ingredients. Form into balls about ½-inch in diameter. Refrigerate until ready to cook. To prepare batter, sift flour and baking powder into a mixing bowl. Combine remaining batter ingredients and whisk to make a smooth batter. Pour oil into a deep skillet or a deep-fat fryer to a depth of 1 inch and heat to 375°F. Coat balls with batter and fry, a few at a time, until golden brown. Move to paper towels to drain briefly. Serve with tartar sauce. Serves 8 to 10.
“The biggest mistake we’ve seen is watching people from out of town trying to eat crabs with a plate, knife, and fork in dress clothes. It’s quite the wrestling match.”
—Tom DiPaula, S. DiPaula & Sons
A local expert explains why maryland blue crab is without equal.
The blue crab swims in waters spanning from Nova Scotia to Argentina, but our boys—and girls—in blue are indisputably the best in the world. The question is why? “Maryland is the farthest north that the blue crab is harvested commercially, which means that they hibernate over the winter and bury themselves in the bay bottom,” says Steve Vilnit, former director of fisheries marketing at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. Much like mammals, their hibernation leads to increased fat stores, says Vilnit. “In order for crabs to hibernate, they have to build up fat reserves,” he explains. “Those fat reserves give our crabs the full-fat, buttery flavor that you simply can’t get in a warm-water crab.” Case closed.