Classics in crab, Maryland style, in Havre de Grace

May 20, 1999|By Kathryn Higham | Kathryn Higham,Special to the Sun

The only problem with Price's Seafood in Havre de Grace is getting there. But this classic crab house is worth the drive, about an hour from downtown Baltimore.

Walk up the steps to this wood-frame house, high on a hill overlooking the Susquehanna River, and snag a green vinyl booth inside. That's not hard to do since the wood-paneled room is filled with them. The booths in the middle are side by side, making them roomy enough for large parties.

Ready for the onslaught of crab shells, tabletops are spread with clean white paper, some scribbled with reservation times. Do as the locals do. Call ahead and ask Irene to hold a dozen crabs.

Irene and Bill Walsh steam Maryland crabs to order here from April through November, just as Irene's grandparents did when they opened for business in 1944. Not much has changed on the photocopied paper menu. The listing of what's available fits on half a page: Maryland crab soup, Dad's crab chowder, soft-shell sandwiches, shrimp salad, crab cakes, steamed shrimp and clams.

Nowhere on the menu does it say steamed hard-shell crabs, but that, of course, is why everyone comes.

You have a choice of a simple Old Bay-style crab spice or Price's blend of black pepper and salt, which lends a robust, full-bodied heat to the crabs. The dozen large we tried, brought in that morning from Crisfield, were closer to medium in size, but they were meaty and cooked perfectly.

To go along with a pile of crabs, order a pitcher of beer and sides of creamy potato salad with celery seed, fresh cole slaw that's not too sweet, or old-fashioned sweet and sour sauerkraut salad. You might start with a bowl of homemade soup, served like the salads in disposable plastic bowls. Both the Maryland crab, with chopped carrots, cabbage and green beans, and the milky thin crab chowder, with minced vegetables and ground thyme, were full of crab lumps.

If you want crabs, but not the mess of hard shells, order a soft shell, lightly floured and pan-fried till it's hot and crisp. Served on soft white bread with lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise, the soft shell was velvet-sweet and crunchy at the same time. Ah, the joys of living in Maryland.

There's nothing showy about the size of the crab cakes at Price's, but they are studded with big lumps. Dark golden, the crab cakes have a rich savory flavor with a hint of mustard. Other than that, there is not a lot of extraneous seasoning or filler to get in the way. The same could be said about the freshly made shrimp salad, with plump nuggets of shrimp and celery in a light dressing.

My friends pointed out that there's nothing better after a meal of steamed crabs than chocolate. These Baltimore natives, who have been picking crabs from about the time they could hold a mallet, claim it's the combination of salty and sweet. At Price's, you can order a slice of something decadent, but that would require your server to clear the shells off your table. You can also get a candy bar to go. When the sole waitress for the restaurant had four parties come in at once, we were just as happy to head back to Baltimore with Peppermint Patties in hand.

Price's Seafood

654 Water St., Havre de Grace

410-939-2782

Hours: Open Tuesday to Sunday for lunch and dinner

Credit cards: None accepted

Prices: $3.95-$4.95; entrees, $6.95-$7.95; crabs, $18-$36 a dozen

Food: ***

Service: ***

Atmosphere: ***

Ratings system: Outstanding: ****; Good ***; Fair or uneven **; Poor *

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