I didn't know what I didn't know. My first gig for the Baltimore Sun was participating in the quarterly dining guide, schlepping out to Randallstown and Dundalk, Canton and Arbutus (that's an unfortunate town name, right?) to crown the best crab cakes. A cake's a cake, I thought. Ah, young silly me, how adorbz you were in your ignorance.
First, there is canned versus fresh crab meat. And then, within the fresh category, there's regular fresh and there's pasteurized, both a cooked product but the pasteurized lending a faint metallic taste to a finished cake. Also, there's grade: "jumbo," "lump" or "back fin" (all good), and the smaller, squidgier "flake" and "special." It goes without saying that the species of crab used matters. (Blue crab, yay. Swimming crab and other species, boo.) And then there's what you use as filler (crushed saltines) and binding (tiny bit of egg). Less is more. Same goes for flavorings — parsley, minced red pepper, garlic are all lovely things, just not in the dream crab cake. A little Old Bay is fair game, as are Worcestershire, Dijon and hot sauce, but don't get nuts. Cakes shouldn't be overmixed, or tightly packed. They should be ball-like and fried just so, so both sides are golden but the center still has plush give.
There were mighty fine cakes in the Highlandtown part of Baltimore and a bit south in Canton. That's where Blake Rodgers is from.
He moved here two years ago after visiting friends in Seminole. Where are the Maryland-style crab cakes, he wondered? He leased a perfume store way out on Central Avenue and got to work building a kitchen. I'm not going to lie, Blake's Crab Cakes is not much to look at. It's pretty much takeout-only, with delivery on the horizon. The menu is short and idiosyncratic, as are the hours.
But it's a real-deal Maryland-style crab cake: Big snowy hunks of crab suspended in smaller shreds of crab with a bit of moist filler, a hint of Old Bay, crunchy-edged. You can have one 5-ounce cake for $12, two 4-ounce cakes for $19.50, served with pedestrian potato chips and a couple cellophanes of saltines; if you want a roll instead, you have to ask. A plastic ramekin of horseradishy cocktail sauce is appropriate, as are ones of tartar sauce or sriracha mayo. Even a lemon wedge. But it requires nothing, and if my experience is an indicator, it may be eaten while driving, plastic foam clamshell scritching against the steering wheel. This is fresh blue crab from the Gulf of Mexico.
Unsurprisingly, Maryland has its own style of crab soup, more akin to Manhattan clam chowder than New England or Rhode Island. It's a red-tinged broth (at Blake's, a mix of chicken and beef) with big chunks of vegetables, lots of sturdy potatoes and drifts of loose crab meat. There's not a lot of spicy sizzle in this version, $5.50 — Rodgers says he prefers to let the seafood take center stage.
He's serving blue crab fingers and soft shell crabs (not breaded or fried, just spiced and sauteed) when in season, but staples include some really solid wings ($9). He brines them with Old Bay, vinegar and beer, so the melange of flavors soak in, then they are baked and finished in the fryer for crispiness. You can have them Buffalo-style, but that's not very geographically appropriate, is it? Rodgers is also paying homage to his dad with Dad's Famous Beef, an eye roast that has been rubbed with chili powder and other spices, roasted, cooled and sliced fairly thick, piled onto a sturdy roll and served with a horseradish mayo. A solid, homey sandwich, $8, best accompanied by skin-on fresh-cut fries with a dusting of Old Bay ($3, $4.50 for a lot), or maybe a ramekin of crunchy, light-on-the-mayo "Grandma's slaw" ($2).
Blue crab is Florida's sixth most valuable fishery in terms of dockside dollars, but tends not to get the attention of grouper or stone crabs. It's good to see Rodgers and his cakes celebrating this gulf beauty, Maryland-style.
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.