By Jane and Michael Stern
Originally Published 2009 Gourmet Magazine
Faidley’s is the big fish in a big pond. It’s the anchor store of the Lexington Market, Baltimore’s grazing paradise, where you can indulge in the likes of Angie’s soul-food plate lunch or a Mary Mervis shrimp salad sandwich and top it all off with a square of Berger’s Bakery old-fashioned frosted coconut cake. But the single greatest thing that must be eaten at the market—the most delicious dish in all of Baltimore, maybe the most beautiful hunk of seafood anywhere on the East Coast between Maine and Charleston Harbor—is a Faidley’s crab cake.
You may think you’ve had a good crab cake, but until you’ve had one at Faidley’s or at one of a handful of lesser-known fish houses along the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay, you do not know the paradigm. What the best ones all have in common is maximum crab and minimum filler. However exiguous, filler is what distinguishes a crab cake from a pile of warm crabmeat. It imparts a wink of non-crab texture, conveys the spice, and frames the meat from which the cake is made; but the cooks of Maryland make this negligible addition so unobtrusive that when you eat one, you might find yourself believing that the sphere on your plate is all crab and nothing but crab, somehow raised to stratospheric succulence by the process of being mounded together and cooked.
Many places offer crab cakes deep-fried, and there is something inarguably pleasurable about how their hard, dark red exteriors break and give way as your teeth sink into their moist interiors. But Maryland’s best crab cakes are not fried. They are broiled just long enough for the meat to warm and for the surface to develop a gossamer gold crust. The crust is thin enough to clearly show the big white nuggets of crab that compose the cake, some of them so large that they defy dispatch by a single bite. Although we have met Marylanders who insist that good crab cakes should contain at least some claw meat and backfin body meat, both of which tend more toward shreds than chunks, connoisseurs generally prefer them made of nothing but jumbo lumps, the formal name for the choicest meat picked from the hind-leg area of the blue crab.
While most of the state’s first-rate crab cakes suggest scant intervention by the cook, the broiled jumbo lump cakes at Suicide Bridge Restaurant—a lovely destination on an Eastern Shore inlet from which dinner-cruise paddle wheelers sail into the Choptank River—test that rule. They hum with a devilish pepper glow, and the snowy meat is speckled with green herbs; nevertheless, sweet crab flavor dominates.
The purest of all the ones we have tried is at The Narrows, a scenic waterside restaurant on the Kent Narrows, at the eastern end of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. It is not the hugest (Faidley’s takes that cake), but its flavor is gigantic. Is there a hint of citrus somewhere among the lumps? A lurking whisper of pepper? It doesn’t matter, because the ocean flavor of warm, fresh crab is overwhelming.
The crab cake at Faidley’s isn’t quite so unadulterated, delivering a mustard-pepper kick in the veins of filler (mayonnaise and crushed saltines) that run between the lumps like lines of lead separating pieces of stained glass. Operated by the same family that started it in 1886—they still form each jumbo lump cake by hand—Faidley’s has long been the Charm City’s favorite crab-cake source. At the edge of the market’s commotion, it is a raw seafood market and oyster bar; its dining facilities consist of chest-high tables at which customers stand and eat.
For a more polite crab-cake experience, and for the cake that some believe to be the very best, the place to go is G&M Restaurant & Lounge, in Linthicum Heights. It is a multi-room tavern and eating hall with a huge menu, amenities such as non disposable flatware, sit-down chairs, and tables with white tablecloths. G&M’s crab cakes are even lumpier than Faidley’s. In this crab cake, you can almost count the pieces of meat, those from the interior glistening, resilient, and all white, those on the outside offering a browned facet with faint crunch. As for filler, while you scarcely feel it on your tongue, its spicy presence enhances the crab’s flavor like salt on a sirloin.
G&M is just about the only place anywhere we would recommend ordering stuffed shrimp. Given the unappealing breadiness of most versions, we hesitated, but when the waitress guaranteed that the stuffing was all crab, we took the plunge and got a trio, each of which was heaped with its own virtual crab cake. At the end of the meal, all that was left on the plate were three shrimp tails and not a speck of their magnificent jumbo lump crab stuffing.
GM Restaurant & Lounge