Saturday, February 24, 2018
Restaurants

On the hunt for Maryland-style crab cakes in Tampa Bay

As a native of Maryland, I was taught to pick blue crabs at the same time I was taught to walk, so it is common for me to roll my eyes at any menu outside of the Chesapeake Bay region containing the words, "Maryland crab."

When I was a teenager, I spent summers working at Marina Deck Restaurant in Ocean City, serving crab dip, crab legs, crab imperial, award-winning crab soup and some of the best crab cakes in all the state — broiled or pan-fried.

When I moved to Florida, a close friend told me: "Don't ever order a crab cake in Florida. The menu might say 'Maryland crab', but don't fall for it."

After a few months of withdrawal, I finally caved. My fiancé and I were out at dinner in Tampa and the place had the same seaside village charm of Marina Deck, so I could not resist and ordered the crab cakes.

It was a mistake I have not repeated.

I tell you all this to help you understand my appreciation of the Maryland crab cake, so you, too, can know the frustration of having a beloved regional dish misrepresented.

But after five years of disillusionment, I finally found an authentic Maryland crab cake in Tampa Bay.

What is an authentic Maryland crab cake? Interpretations vary slightly, but it's a culinary creation shaped like a patty and made with lump or backfin blue-crab meat, a dash of parsley, a dash of Worstershire and held together by a binder, usually crackers or dried bread. Oh, and it has to have Old Bay — a seasoning made of celery salt, red pepper, black pepper and paprika.

My journey to find one started at Tampa Bay Brewing Co. in Ybor City. Their menu touts a crab cake appetizer, described as pan-seared Maryland-style crab and shrimp cakes. However, the TBBC version suffered a classic case of too much cake and not nearly enough crab. Also, there was no Old Bay in the recipe and, instead, a large helping of red peppers permeated the flavor. My fiancé summed up the dish with these words, "there's no Maryland in those cakes."

Next up, I tried Fresh Market's "Ultimate Crab Cake" at the location on Henderson Boulevard in Tampa. The upscale grocery store does not label their crab cake "Maryland style", but the recipe includes lump blue crab and a "special blend" of spices. I brought the crab cakes home and pan-fried according to the carry-out box's instructions. While there was a fair amount of lump meat, the cakes were bland, too creamy and cakey. Overall, I do not think the Fresh Market crab cake is very "ultimate."

On to the next place, which was the quaint Backfin Blue Café in Gulfport. According to their website, the 1920s cottage café has "the best backfin blue crab cakes south of the Chesapeake." Naturally, I was intrigued.

When we arrived for dinner on a Friday night, the restaurant captivated me and swept me off my feet with a specials menu full of dishes that all involved jumbo lump crab meat prepared in various ways. The regular dinner menu boasts "Maryland style" blue crab in every section from sandwiches to soups to salads to entrees.

We ordered the Maryland-Style Jumbo Crab Cake appetizer and were not disappointed. Backfin's baked version of the Maryland classic is abundant with lump crab meat and combined with just the right amount of filler, so the consistency is luscious and light.

The only mark this cake missed was a heavy dose of Old Bay. While the recipe includes the seasoning, my Marylander palate did not pick it up. However, I will definitely go back and order these cakes, so the charming back porch café is doing something right.

It was the fourth and final find on my culinary quest, the Old Bay Café in Trinity, that had me feeling transported to my home state via my taste buds.

What I saw on Old Bay Cafe's Facebook page delighted me. Comments and five star recommendations included the words "real deal," "heaven" and "just like Maryland." In fact, the crab shack looks like an enormous Old Bay can. The fiancé and I were immediately at home, with waving Maryland flags bejeweling the bright yellow haven next to the Trinity Walmart.

The ordering counter displayed various condiments that are staples for Maryland seafood lovers — various flavors of Old Bay, cocktail sauce and vinegar. Old Bay Cafe's menu proclaims its motto, "We don't fake the cake," so I ordered the Crab Cake Sandwich.

One bite and I forgot I was sitting in the Sunshine State.

The flavors were traditional and nostalgic. The flash fried cake was packed with jumbo meat and Old Bay seasoning. It was served simply, with lettuce, tomato and standard tartar sauce on the side. The homemade Old Bay potato chips served with all sandwiches were a special treat and are satisfying enough on their own.

OBC's menu mixes a variety of Maryland cuisine classics with Florida favorites, so along with shrimp salad and a Chesapeake Cheddar Burger they also serve fish tacos and pork barbecue.

The Old Bay Cafe Facebook page displays several photos of steamed blue crabs, but when I checked in on a September Saturday the cook told me, "We're not serving steamed crabs right now. They're big, but light, and we don't mess with those."

Smart.

So, if you are interested in tasting an authentic Maryland crab cake and exploring more of what Maryland seafood is all about, Old Bay Cafe is the place to go.

Next time, I'm trying the crab cake tacos.

— Check out a video of Amber's Maryland crab cake quest at ­tampabay.com.

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