Ready, get set, go! Let the crab cake wars begin
Every morning, I pour myself a cup of cold-brew coffee. I add a polite squirt of Monin Dark Chocolate, a splash of half & half, and then pad into my office to gaze into the murky horrors of the unknown. In other words, I read my email.
My various email boxes get around 150 hits every day. Of course, there are always the crazies (refer to my “send to trash” column from a few months ago), but the great majority of people are kind enough to share their thoughts about our local eateries. Though I grouse about it (to get a laugh), it affords me a pretty good cross-section of the local zeitgeist, i.e., the prevailing mood that suggests what’s “in” or what’s not quite so “in.” One thing I can be sure of: Crab cakes will always be “in.”
A significant number of local transplants grew up around Baltimore. The place is crazy for crabs. So whose are the best? Not so fast! Crab cakes are like pizza, barbecue, matzoh ball soup and yo’ momma’s chili: Styles vary geographically, and everybody swears by their favorite. Lump, backfin, a shredded combo of both, spicy, not so spicy, fried, broiled, with filler, no filler, round, flat - each is somebody’s favorite. But thanks to your aforementioned emails, some local trends have emerged.
Top spots at the beach include, in no particular order, the broiled orbs at Woody’s Dewey Beach Bar & Grill where Jimmy O’Conor mixes up small batches of his award-winning recipe. Just a few steps from Woody’s, Steve “Monty” Montgomery makes no bones about the cakes at Starboard Raw. He proudly calls them Baltimore-style, and they arrive with saffron rice, Brussels sprouts and Old Bay-spiked tartar. A sleeper just north of the Nassau Bridge is The Surfing Crab. These jumbo lump gems are related to Maryland’s Bethesda Crab House that’s been dishin’ up the blue crustaceans for almost 60 years. Another new kid on the block (well, sort of) is Don and Lori Allan’s Beaches Seafood. They turn out a particularly flavorful product - and rightly so, since their new Milton location replaced Gilligan’s - home to Cheryl Tilton’s close-to-perfect cakes.
Big Fish Grill bosses and brothers protect their mom’s secret recipe. The late Geneva Sugrue is also the namesake for their often-imitated-but-never-quite-duplicated Neva’s potatoes. On Second Street in Lewes is Jerry’s Seafood with their Crab Bomb. Other than Baltimore’s Gunning’s Seafood (sadly no more) and the legendary Faidley’s in Lexington Market (they’ve been doing it for 130 years), Jerry’s is one of the biggest I’ve seen.
When Chef Maurice Catlett is slingin’ hash at one of the SoDel Concepts restaurants, you can be sure that his Louisiana touch will be deliciously evident. His own recipe is almost always available at the two (soon to be three) Matt’s Fish Camps. Can’t talk crabs without talking Fins Hospitality Group. Jumbo lump cakes are available at all their Fins locations and also at Claws in downtown Rehoboth Beach, both as an entrée and a sandwich.
Sometimes good crab cakes turn up in the strangest places. Like a steakhouse, for example. The massive orbs at 1776 Steakhouse march proudly out of the kitchen decorated with cranberry relish. Another unassuming spot with exceptional cakes (so unassuming, in fact, that it took me several years to write about the place) is Roland Buckingham’s Catchers restaurant on The Avenue next to Lupo Italian Kitchen. Do not leave Catchers without trying the scallops wrapped in crispy bacon. Scallops were put on this earth to be wrapped in bacon. And fried. So there.
There are probably more Baltimoreans in Ocean City than around here, so I would be remiss if I snubbed the southern hinterlands. Check out Coins at 28th St.! Host extraordinaire Jack Schachter puts out a very nice “no mumbo - just jumbo” cake. Crabcake Factory, Shark on the Harbor and Buddy Trala’s Sunset Grill also turn out a fine product. And we can’t forget Phillips Crab House. They’ve been mixin’ up their crab cakes fresh every morning for over 65 years.
Back up north, Derek and Zach at Atlantic Social are so proud of their cakes that they positioned them at the very top of the menu. Downtown, Dale and John pay homage to Louisiana with Cooter Brown’s signature cakes that march over to your table flanked by green apple celery slaw and fried green tomatoes. Of course, no discussion of seafood is complete without mentioning Henlopen City Oyster House. They pan-sear their cakes to a slightly buttery crunch. This is not a bad thing.
I know there are more crab cakes out there, but these are some of the ones I hear about the most. I’ll rely on you to explore them - and others, then tell me what you think. I’ll be waiting with my second cold-brew. I write it off as a medical expense.