Craveable Maryland Crab Cakes
When you think of American regional seafood, a few places come to mind: Maine Lobster, Alaskan Salmon and King Crab, and New Orleans crawfish. And when you think of Maryland, you think of crab cakes – big juicy cakes made from tender Blue Crab. These specialties are the real deal, loaded with Jumbo Blue Crab so sweet that they don’t hide the taste behind fillers. There is a very little variation on the crab cake recipe; either no one in Maryland messes with the tried and true crab cake or the good restaurants pay homage to one style with very slight variations:
- No visible breadcrumbs.
- No visible fillers – onions, green herbs, carrots, etc.
- Nearly all Jumbo Blue Crab pieces.
- Crispy, broiled exterior and a soft, moist middle.
- Minimally seasoned to highlight the natural crab flavor.
The Cooking Process
You start the process with huge pieces of Blue Crab and mix in just enough mayonnaise and a hint of breadcrumbs to hold the cake together. With a light hand, supporting flavors such as Old Bay Seasoning, mustard, Worcestershire sauce and or lemon juice can be added. When you order the cake, it’s portioned out with a size 8 scoop. All portion scoops are numbered by how many scoops it would take to fill a quart, so the lower the number, the bigger the scoop. The cook then places it with a little oil on a hot broiler plate, slams it in the hot oven for about 10 minutes, and finishes it with a brief trip under the intense commercial broiler. This gives the cake that crispy exterior while preserving the moist and juicy interior. When the crab cake is brought out, it is on an un-apologetically empty plate; this is a no frills meal because they take it seriously! The only garnish needed is a single lemon wedge.
So, I land in Baltimore around 9 a.m. and am excited! I mean, I’m going to be eating Maryland crab cakes all day. Who wouldn’t be, right? It’s a cold, rainy late autumn day in Baltimore and with time to kill (no place will open till 11) I find a local coffee shop to grab a cup of real drip coffee, a bagel shmear (a price I will pay for later) and begin to review my list for the fourth time today. It’s organized first by establishments that are high on my list, then routed on a map by location so I don’t zigzag all over the city.
I pull into the G&M Restaurant at 11:15 on a Thursday and am not surprised that the place is already packed. As I walk in, the heavy wood interior reminds me of an old 70’s supper club. I take a quick look around to check out what other people have on their plates – crab cakes and more crab cakes. I don’t even see a burger in the joint. But, being lunch, most of them resemble what SpongeBob calls a Krabby Patty, or to an actual person, a crab cake sandwich. When the cake arrives it is nothing like I am used to and I am not disappointed.
Where I currently reside, in the Midwest, you get small smashed patties of crab, tons of celery, onions, and a lot of breadcrumbs. But, this was a huge mound of moist sweet Blue Crab with a crispy exterior and very little else. As I dug my fork in and pulled it open, you could see the pieces of crab were so large they extruded out of the top of the cake. One bite and I knew I was finishing this. There are more places to review ahead, but I can’t be sure they will all be this good. The flavor is clean – you taste the crab, a little mayonnaise, Old Bay and little else. The G&M was amazing and surprisingly only got second place on my list. But let me be clear early on, you can’t go wrong with any of these crab cake havens.
Jimmy’s Famous Seafood
Feeling good with one crab cake down, the next stop on my list was Jimmy’s famous seafood on the near North side. It was raining but I had no choice but to stop and admire the sign; just like a pig on a BBQ sign is a good omen, a crab on a seafood sign has to be the same. It’s right after the lunch rush and there are still a few patrons around the bar. I begin to tell them about my crab cake adventures and they jump right in with recommendations. Crab cakes are a very serious topic in Baltimore and they confirmed that I was at a great place and the right restaurants were on my list.
Next thing I knew crab cake number two was in front of me, and I was impressed yet again. This was another heaping mound of mouthwatering Blue Crab. Same crisp exterior and basic look so I’m sensing a pattern here. As I stuck my fork in and pulled it open though it was immediately apparent they would be very different. Jimmy’s crab cake had as little mayo and fillers as I have seen. In fact, I wondered how it didn’t just fall apart on the plate. Because of the lack of fillers, there was a much heavier seafood taste in this cake with a gentle touch of Old Bay. The crab pieces are big, real big, and even though I know more are coming, I feel guilty wasting such an incredible dish – I can’t help but eat the whole thing before I leave. At this point, I’m rolling to my car and slowly making my way to the next stop.
As I pull into Pappas I’m starting to feel the effect of all the rich crab; I’m still moving albeit at a slower pace. I am greeted right away by a manager who takes my order as we begin to talk crab. She informs me that Pappas was just named one of Oprah’s favorite restaurants sparking a lot of mail orders. They’ve gone from 500 crab cake orders a month to just under 500 a day.
The manager brings out Pappas’ cucumber salad and says I have to try it – not a choice. It’s a crisp vinegar and sugar salad, and very good. The crab cake comes out I am already full (paying the price from that stupid bagel). It looks amazing and again very similar to the others. I am full, and this crab cake was over hyped by the manager as being so famous, so I’m prepared for a letdown. But to my amazement, this is the best dish of the day. It has the perfect balance of crab, mayonnaise, and seasonings and is truly worth the praise. I get half of the way in and I have to throw in the towel. I graciously ask for the check and try to leave, but am run down at the door with the wrapped up leftover cake. NO ONE throws it away I am told. So I oblige and take it with me to be a midnight snack in my hotel room.
At this point I was supposed to be making my way to Faidley Seafood, but, I am close to a food coma at this point. Hopefully, I’ll be able to make a return trip soon to continue my tour with crab cakes – I’m confident it will be another exquisite experience.