I'm not a food snob. But I do get uppity when "Maryland-style crab cake" is written on a San Diego menu. I'm a Baltimore-born boy. Nearly all the crab cakes served in Southern California are not Maryland-style. You might enjoy the crab cakes served to you in seafood restaurants here on the Left Coast. If diners could do side-by-side comparisons, though, they'd see it's like ordering a filet mignon and being brought a slice of bacon.
Maryland blue crabs come from the Chesapeake Bay. There's a debate roiling those waters right now with Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe claiming the crustaceans as natives of his state. He recently told the Washington Post: "All the crabs are born here in Virginia and they end up, because of the current, being taken there [to Maryland]. So really, they should be Virginia crabs."
Gasp! Scientists agree. However, the majority of the commercial catch is by Maryland watermen. And, chefs in Maryland traditionally prepare crabs more deliciously, by steaming them. Virginians tend to boil the crabs, which takes away flavor.
In Baltimore, you'd buy a bushel of steamed crabs, dump them out on butcher paper on the backyard table and work for hours on cracking open the shells and the claws to dig out the delectable meat. There used to be one restaurant in downtown San Diego that tried to reproduce the Maryland crab feast, Johnny M's 801, but it's long gone.
When it comes to proper preparation of crab cakes, the authentic recipe calls for using the best meat...and little else. Breading is the enemy. There shouldn't be saltines, Ritz crackers or any large amount of bread products in the mix.
In all my searching in San Diego for such a dish, one place stands out over others. It's a chain eatery that was founded, of all places, in Minneapolis. The Oceanaire Seafood Room (400 J St.) in the Gaslamp Quarter is legit.
This is where celebrity chef Brian Malarkey got his start. Executive chef Adam Gunderson currently oversees the kitchen. He's been at the downtown location for seven months but has been with the company for five years.
"The very essence of the crab cake lies in the meat itself," says Gunderson. "It's Maryland blue crab jumbo lump meat. That's all it is. There isn't any filler, just a little bit of bread that we dice up quickly."
It's served with a slice of lemon and a mustard-mayonnaise dressing on the side.
"Other crab cakes are breaded and use shredded meat, and are fried, or done really quick on the grill," says Gunderson. "We bake ours. It's really nice, huge chunks. We brush it with a little bit of Old Bay butter. It goes into the oven for about seven to ten minutes. And it's good to go."
Shipping costs for the good stuff can be prohibitive. At Oceanaire, the jumbo lump crab cake appetizer is $18; the entrée version is $35.
Crab cravings are not cheap. And while Oceanaire stands above the San Diego pack for crab cakes, there are other restaurants that have standout crab-featured dishes, most using Dungeness or stone crabs more readily available in the Pacific Ocean. Here are five options worth shaking a claw at:
Truluck's Seafood Steak & Crab House (8990 University Center Lane). The five-ounce crab cake here is one of few in town made with genuine Maryland jumbo lump meat. It's also seasoned with Old Bay. If you gotta have a crab cake, this will do. The appetizer version is $18. Of note: on Mondays through the summer you can chow down on unlimited crab claws (Dungeness) for $79/person.
Amaya (5300 Grand Del Mar Ct.). Fairmont Hotels and Resorts recently took over the Grand Del Mar. There are two primary restaurants at the resort, and Addison overshadows Amaya, but at such a high level it's like saying Michael Jordan is a better basketball player than Scotty Pippen. Anyway, Amaya has a fantastic Dungeness Crab Benedict ($21), served for brunch with tomato, avocado and chipotle hollandaise.
Blush Ice Bar + East-West Kitchen (555 Market St.). This spot just opened downtown, on the border of the Gaslamp and East Village. I'm going back soon for the blue crab-stuffed mushroom appetizer ($13), that comes topped with kale and Humboldt Fog goat cheese.
Lou & Mickey's (224 Fifth Avenue). It's called crab bisque (but it's more like a tomato-based chowder), with Dungeness crab, carrots, celery, red pepper and basil. A bowl is $10.50; a cup is $8.
The Fish Market (re-opened at 750 N. Harbor Dr.). How about a (Dungeness) Crab Louie salad? This light dish has been on the menu here for three decades. The crab comes on a bed of field greens and iceberg lettuce, accompanied by tomato, cucumber, radish and a sliced hard-boiled egg.