As the souvenir t-shirt states, “Maryland is for crabs.” And around these parts, those crabs are blue crabs, aka Callinectes sapidus. Once plentiful in the Chesapeake Bay, pollution and over-fishing have caused Marylanders to resort to importing blue crabs from the Carolinas and the Gulf of Mexico. No matter–wherever they come from, blue crabs are some of the most flavorful shellfish around.
While we like to eat them simply steamed, encrusted with a spicy salty seasoning blend, sometimes we prefer the more expedient/less messy way of getting crab into belly–crab cakes. Here in Baltimore, the largest city in Maryland, we have several fine examples of the crabby patty, and many restaurants brag that theirs are the best in town. But whose crab cakes really are the best? Well, that may be a matter of personal taste. Some people prefer their crab cakes to be nothing more than a pile of crab meat, held together by sheer will. Others don’t mind if their cakes are a little on the saucy side. Seasoning differs from restaurant to restaurant–not everyone uses the ubiquitous Old Bay–but no bell peppers, please. They detract from the delicate flavor of the crab.
So who has the best crab cakes in Baltimore? Here are five of our favorites.
1. Koco’s Pub
This award-winning, fist-sized beauty is a hefty 11 ounces of luscious and sweet jumbo lump blue crab. The restaurant buys the best crabmeat they can get, and they form the cakes in small batches every day. The first thing you’ll notice about Koco’s crab cakes, after the size, is that they’re broiled to a beautiful brown shade (some places don’t leave their cakes under the broiler quite long enough for
my taste). Breaking into it, you’ll find tons of sweet lump crab, very little filler, and a saucy binder. “Saucy” means more wet than dry, in crab cake parlance, and to our minds, makes for a rich and creamy texture.
4301 Harford Rd, Baltimore, MD
Chef Nancy Longo puts a twist on her classic crab cake–she gently smokes the crab meat with fruitwood before assembling her cakes. Longo uses a combination of lump and claw meat, and a filler of “butter-style” crackers (aka Ritz).
Charm City Cakes owner and Food Network personality, Duff Goldman, puts Pierpoint’s crab cakes at the top of his list, calling them “ridiculous.” If you can’t make it to Baltimore to try Chef Longo’s crab cakes, you can make them yourself from her recipe in Baltimore-centric cookbook, Baltimore Chef’s Table: Extraordinary Recipes from Charm City and the Surrounding Counties.
1822 Aliceanna St, Baltimore, MD
Stepping into the original Parkville location of Pappas is like stepping into a time machine. While the decor is on the old-fashioned side and the customers are, too, their lumpy 8-ounce crab cakes are a thing of beauty. They use colossal lump crab and darn little filler. They’re not overly spiced, either, so the sweet sweet flavor of the blue crab shines. If you’re looking for a pile of unadulterated crab, Pappas’ is your place.
1725 Taylor Ave, Baltimore, MD
4. Great Sage
I’m now going to make your head spin. While there are plenty of really good crab cakes around that use actual crab, one of my all time favorites is a crab cake made with
no crab at all. That’s right–a vegetarian crab cake. Vegan, to be exact, because Great Sage, in Clarksville, about 25 miles outside of Baltimore, serves no animal products of any kind. Their “crab” cake is made with shredded hearts of palm, the moist texture of which mimics crab in a quite convincing manner. Bound with vegan mayo and seasoned with Old Bay, Great Sage’s crab cakes are delicious enough to make even this picky Baltimorean’s top five list. The recipe for this veggie delight is also in Baltimore Chef’s Table: Extraordinary Recipes from Charm City and the Surrounding Counties.
5809 Clarksville Square Dr, Clarksville, MD
Baltimore’s first real celebrity chef is John Shields, he of the PBS shows Coastal Cooking with John Shields and Chesapeake Bay Cooking with John Shields. He also has multiple cookbooks under his belt and is one of the nicest people you’d ever want to meet. His restaurant, Gertrude’s, at the Baltimore Museum of Art, offers several different crab cakes. The one always available is Gertie’s crab cake, an all-lump beauty made from his grandmother’s recipe. Often there’s a special crab cake, like Mrs. Tawes’ or Clayton’s Cambridge, all made with Maryland blue crab meat (Gertrude’s is one of the participants in the True Blue Maryland Crab certification program) and various, yet still authentic Maryland, seasonings.
10 Art Museum Dr., Baltimore, MD
About Kathy Patterson
Kathy Patterson is one half of the Baltimore Dining Duo. Along with her husband, Neal, she is the author of Baltimore Chef’s Table: Extraordinary Recipes from Charm City and the Surrounding Counties, a cookbook featuring recipes from over 50 Baltimore restaurants, and Food Lovers’ Guide to® Baltimore: The Best Restaurants, Markets & Local Culinary Offerings (Food Lovers’ Series), a restaurant guide. They also write the food blog Minxeats.