With so many different ways to cake a crab, it’s no wonder so many cities — and foodies — have gone crustacean crazy.
By Paul Boorstin
Sautéed, baked, grilled, or deep-fried, they can range in size from a Girl Scout cookie to a two-fisted burger. They are a uniquely democratic dish, equally sought after at seafront greasy spoons and white-tablecloth bistros. In Colonial times they were called “crab croquettes” or “crab patties.” It was not until the 1930s, food historians believe, that the name “crab cake” first appeared in print. The label stuck, and our appetite for this timeless comfort-food classic has only grown more insatiable.
At first glance, crab cakes seem deceptively simple to prepare, the crab meat often held together with bread crumbs and enlivened with the like of Dijon mustard, Worcestershire, and Tabasco sauce. Or, if you prefer, cayenne pepper, minced garlic, and Old Bay seasoning.
Simple? Perhaps. But as with any culinary feat, the devil — and the delight — lie in the details. The seasoning should be just enough to bring out the crab’s delicate natural flavor without drowning it out. A crab cake should not fall apart, but it can easily be ruined by over-breading or being packed too tightly. Texture is also critical; enough of the crab should remain in juicy lumps so that the contents of each cake are not reduced to paste. And the patty needs to be crispy on the outside, without becoming overcooked and dry.
There are more than 4,000 varieties of crab, a crustacean that thrives in both fresh and salt water along the East and West coasts of North America. But for sweetness and delicacy, purists insist that none can rival the blue crab, Callinectes sapidus Rathbun, which is harvested from Chesapeake Bay. Maryland crab cakes can either be served “boardwalk style” (breaded and deep-fried) or “restaurant style” (chunks of crabmeat broiled or sautéed with butter, sometimes without breading). With crab cakes a beloved Maryland icon, it’s no surprise that the state has bestowed upon the blue crab the illustrious title of state crustacean.
In addition to the blue crab of the East Coast, with its historic Maryland pedigree, the Dungeness crab of America’s West Coast is equally coveted by crab-cake lovers. And in the damp, gloomy months of winter in the Pacific Northwest, Dungeness crab meat is at its sweetest.
Here are four of our favorite contenders for crab cake glory, starting with an unlikely dining spot with neither waiters nor tables — but with crab cakes that pack them in. They’re that good.
203 North Paca Street
Baltimore, MD 21201
Crunchy on the outside and juicy on the inside, these handmade jumbo lump crab cakes are cooked to order and have been called the “gold standard” by which all others are judged.
This crab cake shrine in downtown Baltimore is located in historic Lexington Market (founded 1782), an enormous two-story building with stalls that sell down-home food including pig feet, hog maws, chitlins, and chicken gizzards. The crab cakes are served stand-up lunch-counter style, and are often washed down with cold beer.
Also on the Menu
Munch on the onion rings, or rub elbows with the regulars at the raw bar for prime oysters from the James River, expertly shucked to order.
The patties contain a bare minimum of saltine filler, and are lightly spiced with just enough Old Bay seasoning so that the delicate crab flavor can shine through.