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The absolute best crab cakes on the Chesapeake

Crab cake plate at the Watermen's Inn -- Crisfield, Maryland (June 2013)iPhone 4 + 30/2.8

Crab cake plate at the Watermen’s Inn — Crisfield, Maryland (June 2013)
iPhone 4 + 30/2.8

Cindy and I have been on a life-long quest – a quest to find the absolute very best Chesapeake Bay crab cakes the world has ever known.

We have both been huge fans of crab cakes since we were young; Cindy – being a native Annapolitan – has eaten them since she was knee-high to a grasshopper, and I’ve eaten them since moving to Maryland with my family in the mid-1970s.  Both of us have spent many enjoyable summer days stalking the wily blue crab with hand lines, nets or traps – and a fun time for us is to head out on the water and go crabbing all afternoon, making sure to release the freshly caught crabs into the interior of the dinghy just for the fun of it.  Gotta watch your toes when a spitting-mad crab is lunging for them!

Both of us enjoy blue crab in all its forms – steamed, soft shell, crab cakes, crab dip, stuffed, baked, deep-fried, broiled and sautéed – the list is virtually endless.  But the form of blue crab we seek out the most is the crab cake.  And in our quest for the One, the Only, the True and the Perfect crab cake – we have chased them down at regional seafood establishments, Baltimore’s Inner Harbor pavilions, the Ocean City boardwalk, crab shacks, Ma-and-Pa diners, local greasy spoons and hole-in-the-wall dives along the Chesapeake Bay coastline.  We’ve had them in star-rated fine-dining restaurants, watermen’s events, sailboat shows and bars.  We’ve eaten them in New England, the Mid-Atlantic, Florida and the Gulf; we’ve had them in the mid-West and on the Pacific Coast.  We’ve also eaten them in places where an oar would be considered an oddly-shaped-piece-of-wood-to-be-used-as-kindling.  I even went so far as to try one from McDonald’s back in the summer of 1993; it was a thin and limp fast-food attempt that was a mix of Chesapeake crab, Asian crab, fish meal, corn meal and seasoning that enraged the local watermen – and the flavor was as expected… pathetic.
So…  In short – if crab cakes are on the menu – we’re willing to try them.  If they’re good, we’ll go back with repeat business.  And if they’re spectacular, we’re willing to go to great lengths and distances to enjoy them on special occasions.  And spectacular to me is a big step up from my own home-made crab cakes…
Callinectes sapidus Rathbun – via Wikipedia
The scientific name for the official Maryland State Crustacean – the Chesapeake Bay blue crab – is Callinectes sapidus Rathbun, which roughly translates into “beautiful swimmers savory“.  Its name honors Mary Jane Rathbun, the Smithsonian Institution zoologist who described the species in 1896, and who made crustaceans her life’s work.  Our blue crab can be found throughout the waters of North America, primarily along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts and in the Caribbean.
There are at least two other blue crabs that are commercially harvested around the world:
Portunus pelagicus – via Wikipedia
  • Portunus pelagicus – is a swimming crab found along the Asian coasts of the Indian and Pacific Oceans and areas of the Mediterranean Sea.  The males are a bright blue color with white spots.
Portunus trituberculatus – via Wikipedia
  • Portunus trituberculatus – is another swimmer and the most widely harvested species of crab in the world, with over 98% of it being fished off the coast of China.
As good as these two Asian crabs may be – and I’ve had both of them – their flesh is not as sweet and delicate as the meat from the Chesapeake blue crab, the Asian crabs having a sharper flavor.
I have found that the Maryland blue crabs can have a subtle, sweeter flavor difference from those taken in southern Virginia or Carolina waters; this appears to be a function of the season, as we have noticed Chesapeake crabs to sweeten more in the latter weeks of the summer than the early weeks of the spring.   We have also heard anecdotes from local watermen that they can taste the difference in crabs taken from other locations on the same day within the same season.

We think the tastiest blue crabs we’ve had came from Maryland’s Eastern Shore around Crisfield and Smith Island, and Virginia’s Eastern Shore around Tangier Island.  These southern Eastern Shore waters abound with aquatic life that the crabs thrive upon and the water there appears to be very clean. The best time of the year to eat Chesapeake blue crabs at their peak flavor ranges from early-August to Labor Day, when the crabs are heavy and full of delicate, naturally sweet flesh.  There is some debate as to whether the Jimmies (males) or the Sooks (females) have the very best flavor; however, we have always preferred number one Jimmies for their size and like to leave the Sooks in the water where they can make more delicious crabs for future seasons.

Maryland crab cakes generally come in two distinctive styles; boardwalk and restaurant:

  • Boardwalk-style crab cakes are made with a variety of seasonings and fillings or binders, then typically breaded and deep-fried.  The binder – usually bread crumbs or corn meal mixed together with egg – is used to keep the crab cake from falling apart while it is being deep-fried in the oil.  We have found this style to have the most variation in the region.
  • Restaurant-style crab cakes are made largely with just large chunks of lump crab meat, mixed with a little seasoning and then broiled under an open flame or sautéed with butter in a pan.
Cindy and I tend to favor the boardwalk-style, so long as the fillings are minimally there to bind the structure of the crab cake, and enhance and balance flavor… and not as a filler to replace the crab!  Boardwalk-style best represents the type of crab cakes we were raised with, though we never turn down a good restaurant-style crab cake when the opportunity presents itself.
To us, the very BEST Chesapeake Bay crab cake should meet certain criteria:
  • To be authentic, the recipe must use Chesapeake Bay blue crab – although blue crab from the Carolinas, the Atlantic, the Gulf or the Pacific Rim can certainly make acceptable crab cakes in their own right. This criteria is getting harder and harder to maintain, as the blue crab population in the Chesapeake has plummeted to just a fraction of its former peak numbers. For my own home-made crab cakes during the past several years, I’ve had to resort to using canned blue crab meat from Indonesia, India or China – the imported blue crab doesn’t taste quite the same, but our local crab has become almost impossible to buy at times due to ghastly cost and even shorter supply.
  • The crab meat must largely remain in fresh, moist, tasty lumps. Nothing is worse than a crab cake that tastes old or is over-cooked and dry. Another complaint we have is with cooks that over-handle the lumps of meat, breaking them down into a uniform mass that lacks texture and that is missing the pockets of sweet flavor a good crab cake is known for.
  • A minimum of fillers must be added. This gets tricky, and is based upon the recipe being used and the intended end result. Some recipes call for bread crumbs or something similar and others don’t. Some recipes call for the inclusion of other ingredients to heighten the visual presentation as well as the taste presentation. The key is not to overwhelm the crab flavor, which is delicate.
  • The seasoning must be moderated – not too little and not too much. It should enhance the natural sweet flavor of the crab and not overwhelm it. Most Maryland crab cakes use Old Bay Seasoning that is combined with some type of prepared mustard to form a seasoning base; both of these are strong flavors, so they must be used lightly.
  • The other ingredients need to be uniform and small in size. I’ve found that the flavor of my own crab cakes skews all over the place if I don’t chop the other items to be of a small uniform size. Again, the key is to showcase the crab and not detract from it.
  • Good crab cakes absolutely must be crispy on the outside. Generally this isn’t a problem with freshly deep-fried, broiled or sautéed crab cakes, but the lack of a crispy exterior generally means that the food isn’t being freshly delivered to the customer, and has instead been under a heat lamp or on a steam table while waiting to be served. I’m sorry but a warmed-up pile of good meat dumped onto a plate by itself is not a crab cake, no matter how much butter is added to it.
  • The cooking method cannot over-power the recipe. Deep-frying at the wrong temperature can produce crab cakes that are excessively oily and heavy in flavor. Likewise, broiling can introduce burned or similar off-flavors if the heat is too high. I’ve found with my own crab cakes that exhaustive trial and error delivers the best results for the specific gear we have in our kitchen, and I expect all of that to be taken into account elsewhere.
  • The crab cake presentation must be appropriate for the venue. My preferred presentation is one that is simple, like the photo at the top of this posting. Otherwise, it’s too much and jarring for the whole experience. I’ve never been a big fan of a crab cake sandwich, because I feel that the addition of the bread alters the flavor of the crab cake. However, I do enjoy some cocktail sauce, tartar sauce, creamy chipotle chili sauce, lemon or a little extra Old Bay on the side, so I can adjust the taste over how it is initially presented to me.

Now – that said – we do have some favorite crab cake sources within the Chesapeake Bay region, even though we haven’t sampled every single crab cake ever offered now or in the past.  We also like regional differences because they add variety.  And yes, we’ve tried Stony’s, Dutch’s Daughter and many other top-rated and recommended crab cake sources throughout the DelMarVa peninsula, but they just don’t do it for us.  To that end, here is our short list of the best crab cakes on the Chesapeake Bay that we prefer – and remember, your mileage may differ:

  • The Watermen’s Inn – Crisfield, Maryland:  The crab cakes produced here are a marvel to the senses, and we give them top billing as the very best we’ve ever had the pleasure of eating.  They are a bit of a hybrid between boardwalk and restaurant-style crab cakes in that they appear to be broiled, but are made with a moderate amount of very flavorful filler.  And by flavorful, I mean over-the-top CRAB in taste.  It’s like they have crab juice concentrated in there somehow.  My own thought is that they may have stewed crab shells or legs for awhile, then reduced the resulting broth until it’s a much thicker liquor that’s jam-packed with savory flavor – a trick I learned with some gourmet shrimp recipes.  At any rate, we’ve eaten crab cakes here many times – including our Valentine’s Day meal this year – and can say they remain our top-rated crab cake of choice no matter what the time of year.  Simply outstanding.
  • Smith Island, Maryland and Tangier Island, Virginia:  The crab cakes on both of these Chesapeake Bay islands were top-notch excellent, no matter which one we tried.  In fact, all the seafood was excellent.  The oysters, clams and soft shell crabs were all the very finest we’ve ever eaten, though the crab cakes were not quite the same level of spectacular as those from The Watermen’s Inn at Crisfield.
  • HarborplaceInner Harbor, Baltimore, Maryland:  It’s been so long since we last ate here that I’m not sure it’s still around.  The tiny place we have in mind – neither of us can remember the name – was on the second floor of the “C” pavilion, directly across from the entrance to Hooters.  The crab cakes were stereotypical in that they were made with Old Bay and prepared mustard, but they were inexpensive and had excellent flavor and texture.
  • Haussner’s Restaurant – Baltimore, Maryland:  The crab cakes here were excellent – among the best Baltimore had to offer – and the portions were very generous.  “Were” being the key word as Haussner’s is no more – the family shuttered the business in 1999 and sold their storied art collection at Sotheby’s for $10 million.
Now with that thought to drive me, I’m posting this so I can go make some crab cakes of my own.  Bon appétit!

4 thoughts on “The absolute best crab cakes on the Chesapeake

  1. Chris

    You have got to try the crab cakes at the Surf Rider restaurant in Norfolk. There are several of them here all owned by the same family, but the one you want is off of Newtown road. It is a hole in the wall, but we have never found a better crab cake. Get the two crab cake platter, because they serve it differently for some reason if you just order one. It's not as good. The two cake platter is the cat's meow.

    Surf Rider Restaurant Newtown Road

    * (757) 461-6488

    723 N Newtown Rd, Norfolk, VA 23502


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