The ideal crab cake is, for me, craggy and uneven, with noticeable lumps of meat jutting out at different angles. There should be no visible evidence of breading on the outside and, contrary to most of what's out there, it should not be a perfect disc nor uniformly golden brown in color. Most importantly, it should contain as much pure sweet crab meat as possible, with just a touch of creamy binding to prevent it from falling apart.
In Baltimore and the surrounding area near the Chesapeake Bay, there are numerous restaurants serving exemplary crab cakes. If you’re on a quest to find the ideal crab cake, deciding where to begin is often the toughest part. The standing-room-only bustle of Faidley Seafood or the lowkey charm of Koco’s Pub are two superb options in the heart of Baltimore.
But if I only had a few hours in the area, I would head straight to Shultz’s Crab House, just a 15-minute drive outside the city.
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Shultz’s is a no-frills throwback that exudes the charm of a place that cares about honest, straightforward food rather than trends or Instagram-able presentations. The restaurant is split into two sections: a main dining room and an adjoining tavern room. In the dining room, large fiberglass fish are mounted prominently on the wood-paneled walls alongside old photos of the shoreline, while the James Beard Award they won in 2017 is relegated to a small back corner of the tavern, next to the pool table.
At Shultz’s, the critical question is whether or not to order the jumbo lump or backfin crab cakes. Of course, you could always just order both and decide for yourself which is better. Some folks swear that shredded backfin crab meat is sweeter than the larger morsels of jumbo lump crab. Texturally, many favor the lavishness of the firm jumbo lump meat, although others actually prefer the backfin crab for its soft and lacey texture.
The jumbo lump crab cakes at Shultz’s are broiled, while the backfin crab cakes can come either broiled or fried. I was told that the jumbo lump crab cakes can’t be fried because they would fall apart. I tasted all three versions, and they are all magical. The crab meat is moist and sweet. The binder is luscious and creamy, not bready at all. And each tender, delicate bite left me feeling astonished at how such a pure expression of crab bliss could maintain its shape without falling apart.
If I had to choose a favorite, I’d go with the jumbo lump crab cakes. They tasted ever-so-slightly more immaculate in their crab flavor. The backfin crab cakes seemed to have a touch more binder holding them together. That binder, seasoned with Old Bay, adds an enjoyable creaminess to the inside of the crab cake, but it also faintly competes with the flavor of the meat. If you enjoy decadence, go for the backfin crab cakes. But for pure crab flavor, the jumbo lump crab cakes are ideal.
Shultz’s offers numerous ways to eat crab besides the crab cakes. There’s crab soup, crab bisque, crab fluff, crab dip, crab imperial, and a cheesy lump crab pretzel. Of course, there are also freshly steamed blue crabs, a regional specialty so cherished that it deserves its own article.
The best way to approach the menu at Shultz’s is to stick with the classics. It can be fun to order the crab fluff simply to learn what it is, but when you find out it’s a crab cake that’s been battered and fried like a corn dog, you may wish you’d simply ordered the crab bisque instead.
Above all else, remember that the crab cakes are your reason for coming in the first place. They’re truly not to be missed.
Schultz's Crab House, 1732 Old Eastern Ave, Baltimore, Maryland, 410-687-1020, schultzscrabhouse.com.