One reason I love when friends visit me in D.C. is that it gives me an excuse to get away from work, venture out on foot and explore the city, treding paths that would normally be out of the way and, consequentially, ignored. I had this opportunity again recently, when a friend from Boston was in town for the weekend. Cooling down on a hot summer afternoon with some Coronita-Margarita-Grand Marnier concoctions at the always classy Cantina Marina, we decided to walk down to the Kennedy Center to check out a view of Georgetown. Pretending I actually knew how to get there, I steered us down the boardwalk of Southwest Waterfront, and after a short stroll we stumbled upon something that I immediately knew would be special. Brightly illuminated stands, shadowy figures staring up at menus, pyramids of ice, buckets and bushels strewn about. There would be good food here. The place turned out to be Maine Avenue Fish Market, which is actually the oldest continuously operating fish market (1805!) in the country. Tucked away in the armpit of Interstate 395, this market seems to be a very well established landmark among locals in D.C. but isn’t as known to out of town’ers who, ironically, buy their travel guide recommended “local crab cakes” at less direct (and, in my opinion, less cool) sources, right on the tourist trail. The market is composed of maybe 8-9 different stores, which all seem to have Chesapeake blue crab in common but differ in some of their other specialties. There is definitely a sense of history here, which becomes evident in the type of interactions I witnessed. Everything seems very smooth. Vendors are not explaining their products, because buyers already know all about them. Most come with empty bushels and fill them to the brim with fresh crab, shrimp and fish sold by the pound. Kids get something prepared to nibble on while parents place orders and wait. No one besides me is taking pictures or bouncing around to learn what’s best where.
Next to a huge tray of corn on the cob, there is a vat of steamed jumbo shrimp, moved around every once in a while by a tong-bearing lady. Upon approaching the stand, she picks one out, dips it in Old Bay and hands it to you with a smile, without your even having to ask. The shell comes off easily and the meat inside is juicy, tight and tender. It’s actually very sweet, no subtlety at all, which makes the very salty Old Bay the perfect companion, taming that sweetness without masking it.
Fish, clams, scallops, conch, oysters, prawns, squid and octopus everywhere. But clearly one thing dominates, and that is the Chesapeake blue crab. Crawling around and pinching at the air with muscular blue claws, looking delicious…
We got our crabs from the very first restaurant on the block. I don’t know if it has a name. If it does, I couldn’t make it out amidst the signs boasting of “Spiced Shrimp” and “Jumbo Crab Legs.” Our decision really came down to the stuffed crab dusted with paprika or the crab cakes lightly breaded and pan-fried. There was a guy behind the counter whom I assumed to be the owner from his sea captain like appearance. We asked him which of the two he would recommend to two crab-purists looking to try the stuff in the most naked, yet prepared, form available. Since the stuffed crab had a pretty high bread crumb to meat ratio, he steered us towards the cakes.
These crab cakes ended up being the best I have probably ever had, without exaggeration. The plump, golden brown pucks were packed with fresh meat and very little filler. The breaded crust was just enough to give the thing a crunch to contrast the creamy, moist, silken interior. After this initial crunch, my teeth sank into the soft crabmeat which gushed out onto my tongue, coating my mouth with its natural sweetness and a very feint nutty flavor. I could taste a bit of whole grain mustard and some cider vinegar, as well as some fresh lemon juice, all three of which brought the sweetness of the marine flesh even more to the forefront, by providing a backdrop for it to shine against. There were also some very small bits of scallion chopped up, probably just for color or for the sake of staying true to the classic recipe. I actually didn’t taste too much Old Bay, which was refreshing, since I think a lot of times Chesapeake crabs are over-seasoned with the stuff and the celery salt masks the sweetness of the crab… Some mayonnaise (but just enough!) was used as a binder for the thin, shredded fibers of meat, as well as for extra hydration. The cake came on a soft little bun with packages of tartar and cocktail sauce to add at one’s own discretion. I’m glad this was left up to me – I added neither. I had thought initially that the bun would be great for soaking up excess grease from the fried exterior but there really was no such excess grease to remove.
Perhaps I am still not at all versed in the traditions of Chesapeake Bay crab cuisine. Perhaps there are other, far superior crab cakes out there. But The Wharf seems, at least, an awesome place to start.