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January 25, 2006

24 Hours in Baltimore...

Faidley's flagship crabcake. If the tomatoes served some purpose other than to make for a nice photograph, I couldn't figure it out.
... three huge crabcakes, four small crabcakes, five chilled crab legs and a bowl of crab soup.

And it isn't even crab season.

Admittedly, in my zeal to make the most of our one day in Baltimore, I may have gone a little overboard. It's quite possible that I consumed more fried seafood on this one trip than I did in the previous six months. And it's also quite possilble that I won't be able to touch fried seafood for another six months. But yeah, it was totally worth it.

What I learned is that Marylanders don't get cute with their crabcakes. Sure, everywhere else you'll see them breaded, seasoned, sauced and otherwise dressed up every which way possible. But if I had to go with one word to describe the Baltimore crabcakes I tried, it'd be minimal. Fricking huge, but minimal. And to be clear, this was entirely welcome. After all, when you have fantastic ingredients, dressing them up too much just complicates things. As such, this much wasn't a surprise. But there were three things about them that did catch me off-guard. First off, "lump crabcake", intentionally or not, apparently refers both to the nature of the crab and the shape of the cake. No patties here. Just giant, baseball-sized lumps. Secondly, there was very little if any breading. But the biggest surprise for me was that they were predominately deep-fried. For some reason, I had it in my head that pan-fried was the most traditional, and that deep-fried was the foreign bastardized version. Turns out that not only is this not the case, but that the deep-frying totally makes sense.

Fish market and raw bar paces away, colorful folk manning the fryers and not a chair to be found in the place.
Our first stop on the grand tour du crab was Phillips Harborplace, on the edge of the inner harbor. Phillips had a lot going for it. It came recommended, seemed to be generally respected, and being a scant two blocks from our hotel, it was perfect for a late arrival. It also holds a special place in my ladylove's heart, one of their other locations being a frequent childhood vacation dinner spot. And c'mon... any restaurant that overlooks what essentially looks like a pirate ship can't be all bad. Sadly, we had some service issues that made it hard to give the place a fair shake. While it was solid, I can't say it was exceptional. We had a nice chilled seafood assortment to start, but provided you have good critters to work with, that's tough to screw up. But due to said service issues, my crabcake sat under a heat lamp for at least 20 minutes. As such, I can't say I got the best Phillips has to offer.

So when lunchtime rolled around Monday afternoon, I felt that I had to give traditional Baltimore seafood another shot. A bit of research turned up Faidley's, which hit on three counts. It was within walking distance of the hotel, it had been frequently named the best crabcake in Baltimore by some reliable sources, and as an added bonus it was part of the "World Famous Lexington Market", a charming and impressive indoor farmer's market. On top of which, it sounded like a real hole-in-the-wall authentic spot, which is exactly what I was craving. I wasn't the least bit disappointed. Faidley's is a simple, no-nonsense kind of place. I tried to sweet talk the woman taking orders, but she seemed mostly confused. Of course, I knew the crabcakes were a signature dish, but I was hoping for a little more intel. When I asked her what I should have, her response was, "I don't know, what do you want?" So I took another tack and when I asked what her favorite was, she responded, "Well, I like fish." Being a seafood stand attached to a fish market, I believe this knocked a whole two potential choices off the menu. So I asked for a crabcake. She then pointed to two different cakes sitting on a prep table behind her, saying "That one's the second best crabcake, and that one's the best. Which you want?" Of course, there's only one correct answer to that question. So I ordered myself one "best" crabcake, a plate of fried clam strips (an old favorite I hadn't had in a long time), and I opted to try one random, interesting sounding choice. I had no idea what a coddie was, but I figured it would probably be tasty.

Coddie on the left, crabcake on the right. Both awesome.
As it turns out, I made a great choice. I think I expected coddie to be some kind of fried fish fillet, but that wasn't the case at all. What I got was another fried cake, shaped like a thick hockey puck. It was comprised of cod, onion, and what seemed to be potato, a suspicion that a little research later confirmed. Turns out that in rather convenient fashion, I inadvertenly ordered an unusual fish cake native to Baltimore. A coddie, as it turns out, is almost exactly what my tastebuds told me -- cod flakes or fresh cod, onions and mashed potatoes formed into a patty and deep-fried. And it was fantastic. The breading/batter was a little heavier on the coddie, resulting in a thickish crispy crust on the outside and a wonderfully moist and mushy middle.

After plowing through the coddie, I moved on to the famous crabcake. It was a vast improvement over my Phillips experience the night before. Baltimore crabcakes, it seems, keep the focus on the CRAB, and this is a beautiful thing. I'm still not sure what goes into them, but whatever it is exists solely to bind the crabmeat together, give it a little fried brown goodness on the outside, and season it just barely enough to bring out the crab flavor. The beauty of this crabcake was, to me, in its vaguely chaotic nature. It wasn't uniformly mixed, carefully breaded and perfectly shaped. It was mixed just enough to bind it, formed into a rough hunk, and dropped into the fryolator. The result had lumps, but it had character. I've had some tasty crabcakes, but this one was purity of form. It was almost enough to make me skip the sauce. This, for a condiment whore such as myself, is one of the highest possible compliments.

The fried clams, while great, were probably pushing it. Man can only take so much fried seafood in one sitting (or standing, as the case may be). But that was only yesterday afternoon, and I'm ready for more. And there's even room for improvement. Apparently, when the famous blue crabs are out of season, most of the crab you get in Baltimore is brought in from Mexico. And while it's tasty, I understand it isn't the same. I look forward to hitting crab season next time around, and getting these fellows as they're meant to be.


OK, so my comment is a good two years late, but still ... I'm sure that by now you've learned that what you got at Phillips probably *was* the best they offer. Faidley's is among the many great establishments that encourage visitors to come back to Baltimore for a food group they just can't find anywhere else. Phillips, in striking contrast, seems driven to turn visitors *away* from the Chesapeake Bay's signature dish. Yuck.

Heh... a little late, true, but no less appreciated, I promise :-)

Yeah, I've definitely learned that Phillips is pretty much universally loathed around these parts, and after getting around a little myself, I completely understand why.

And I still love Faidley's, but I'm actually hoping to explore some more this summer. The local food nerds I've come to trust respect Faidley's for the most part, but definitely feel they're somewhat overrated and that there's better to be had. I was going to do a Beef-Off style Crabcake-Off this summer, but then Henry Hong beat me to it. So I guess I'll just do the grand tour du crab for the benefit of own stomach :-)

Like Curious, I just had to comment as well on this item. You are absolutely right that Marylanders do not like anything in the crabcake except for crab, a scant amount of cracker crumbs a little mayo and you're in business. There are very few establishments that do a crabcake well. I would encourage you to try a hole in the wall that I just visited again after several years, G&M, over in Linthicum. I forgot that they make a very good crabcake that a Marylander can be proud of - and the price for the sandwich is fairly reasonable too. Thanks for your posts - they are very informative!

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