Get Cracking

August 21, 1994|By Kathryn Higham

Anyone who's ever had a live crab jump out of the steamer and scramble across the kitchen floor appreciates the laid-back appeal of a crab house, where cracking claws and downing beer are the most taxing requirements in the pursuit of hot steamed crabs.

But are all crab houses the same? To some, it might seem that way. The brown kraft paper, the salty seasoning, the unceremonious dumping of crabs from plastic tray to center of table.

After much grueling research (who are we kidding here?), we can answer with a resounding no. The crab house that's perfect for dining with your in-laws may not be right for: a) socializing with a rowdy bunch of friends, b) impressing a first date or c) making a glutton of yourself over a dozen jumbo males at a table for one.

There are crab houses for those who feel like standing up to eat, eating under palm trees or dancing after eating. There are crab houses that are roomy enough for 100 close friends and swanky enough for celebrities. And there are crab houses overlooking, on, and even in, the water.

This is not a definitive guide. It's more of a quick gastronomic tour of the fun and flavor of our area's crab houses. Some are well-known. Some are not.

To make the cut, restaurants simply had to have an impressive atmosphere and top-notch crabs. One caveat: You may occasionally find a waterlogged or mushy crab at even the best crab houses. If you're dissatisfied, bring it to the manager's attention. Overall, though, the crab houses we've selected serve terrific crabs.

We're talking beautiful swimmers here. Callinectes sapidus, the feisty blue crustacean that's practically synonymous with the state of Maryland itself.


Faidley Seafood, Lexington Market

400 W. Paca St., Baltimore

(410) 727-4898

Crabs available May through October

Centuries ago, the Scottish ate their porridge standing up, in part because that position allowed them to consume more food, and in part to be prepared if a battle happened to interrupt breakfast.

For those engaged in warfare of a corporate nature, or those who just want a quick lunch of steamed crabs, Faidley Seafood in Lexington Market offers patrons an opportunity to keep watch and eat crabs at the same time.

In fact, you can't sit down if you wanted to here. Customers must sidle up to rows of varnished wooden counters, sans seats. Steamed crabs are available opposite the cafeteria line, near the cases of fresh seafood on ice. Spiced firecracker red, they are lined up according to their size.

We tried the super jumbo ($30 a dozen) and the large ($15 a dozen). Both were slightly waterlogged. They were also cold, which is fine with me; I like my crabs hot or cold but not lukewarm. If you want hot crabs here, you'll have to wait until the freshly steamed ones are pulled from the crab kettle. The spice mix isn't hot, but it is salty.

While there surely are more comfortable places to eat crabs, you can't beat the market setting. Crabs are handed over on a sheet of white paper, along with a wooden mallet, but no knife. And standing at the counter, it's fun to survey the lunch crowd and the carnival atmosphere of Faidley's. There are layers upon layers of signs, a veritable shantytown of advertisements proclaiming what's for sale. There's even an oyster sign dating to the original Faidley's in 1887 and one touting muskrat in season.

Our favorite, though, was the sage pronouncement of the eminently quotable Ben Franklin: "Company and fish go bad in three days." To that we add, "And crabs even faster."


Crab Boats at Harrison's Pier 5

5711 Eastern Ave., Baltimore

(410) 783-5553

Open April through October, weather permitting

If you like to eat crabs near the water, you'll love Harrison's Pier 5, where you actually eat crabs on the water -- courtesy of two authentic Chesapeake oyster buy-boats (vessels used to hold oysters purchased directly from watermen).

Board the Levin Faulkner Harrison or the Big Crab, grab a picnic table and order fresh crabs, hauled by the Harrison Oyster Co. on the Eastern Shore, where the family line dates to the 1600s.

You can watch the workers steam crabs in big steel pots on the bow, pouring in pitchers-full of spices. Bushels of live crabs are lined up next to the action (any dead crabs are tossed directly overboard into the Inner Harbor).

The staff seems eager to please. Any complaint brings immediate attention. We overheard one kid say that he only liked claws and some were missing from his pile of crabs. Within moments, his waiter delivered a dozen or more claws that the cook fished from the bottom of the pot. "Wow," was both his and our reaction.

The crabs we tried were $22.50 a dozen -- a mixture of medium and large. Ours were on the smallish side, but we only ordered a half-dozen and got 10 instead. A deal. They were finger-stinging hot, covered in a seasoning mixture with extra paprika, and steamed perfectly.

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