News and notes from Fredericksburg's entertainment scene
Eats: Crab cake is the real deal
BY KURT RABIN
THE FREE LANCE-STAR
Lately I’ve had crabs on the brain—Chesapeake Bay blue crabs, to be exact, and crab cakes in particular. It all started when a reader suggested I do a survey-style piece on where to find the best crab cake in the area.
That’d be easy! Wouldn’t it have to be in Maryland—at the state fair, where a Maryland seafood company recently claimed to have broken the world record for largest crab cake? The whopping 300-pounder used about 200 pounds of crabmeat, along with eggs, breading and seasoning.
Of course, I like mine with a little less filler, thank you! Besides, when it comes to crab cakes, bigger doesn’t always mean better. The best crab cakes are more likely to be the ones made with the freshest jumbo lump available, a squeeze of lemon, a dab of mayo and a chef’s prayer to hold it all together.
Crabs and I go way back—to Maryland, where I spent my formative years walloping my fair share of crabs with a wooden mallet, prying the tender meat from their shells till I’d shredded my fingers along with the backfin. And seafood seasoning? Fuhggedaboudit! I still sprinkle Old Bay on everything under the sun, including my popcorn. A mere whiff of the stuff when passing the grocery’s seafood counter is enough to bring tears to my eyes.
I was thinking about crabs while walking downtown recently, past the former site of Barefoot Green’s, now The Happy Clam. So I stopped in for lunch and ordered the crab cake platter with potato salad and hush puppies ($10.95), along with a slice of homemade coconut cake ($4.95) for dessert. Everything was fine, but it was the crab cake, a medium-size mound that had been fried to a uniform golden brown and bore an uncanny resemblance to a Krispy Kreme custard-filled doughnut, that caught my eye. Its appearance not exactly filling me with confidence, I didn’t have high hopes. But oh my! That first taste was so sublime it took my breath away. It was everything I look for in a crab cake and nothing extra. In fact, it’d easier to describe what it didn’t have: a lot of filler, or any obvious seasoning or deep-fried taste. Nothing but warm, moist, fresh, sweet, succulent crab—and all encased in a crisp yet delicate layer of breading that I mistook for cornmeal but was in fact cracker meal.
I’d asked for tartar sauce, but it would have been a sacrilege to use it on a crab cake so clearly able to stand on its own merits. It gave crab cakes I’ve eaten on Smith Island a run for their money. It seemed that any search for the best local crab cake would have to begin and end at The Happy Clam. I asked one of the owners what went into the crab cakes. Besides salt and pepper, egg, Worcestershire sauce and mustard, there was, he said, an ingredient one doesn’t normally associate with crab cakes. He said if I came back a couple more times, he’d be happy to share with me the remaining ingredient.
My wife and I returned the following night for dinner. We had cream of crab soup ($3.50) for starters and capped things off with peanut-butter pie ($4.95), another of their stellar homemade desserts. In between, she had fried shrimp with coleslaw and twice-baked potato ($17.95) while I got the fried Fisherman’s Platter, which featured fish, scallops, shrimp, oysters and, of course, a crab cake, along with fries and squash casserole ($23.95). Again, everything was done very nicely.
I gave my wife first crack at the crab cake. She remained unmoved and, satisfied with a single bite, passed it back. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but this wasn’t the same crab cake I’d eaten the day before. All I knew was that the magic was missing. This time I was aware of the seasoning, which though hardly obtrusive was unmistakably present. Could it have been a change this slight that had rendered a transcendent dish so ordinary?
Perhaps the key to making great crab cakes is nothing more than consistency—the ability to replicate their same look, texture and flavor time after time. But I’m going to keep an open mind and give The Happy Clam another shot. Because then I’ll have earned the right to glean the final ingredient that went into that first glorious crab cake!
WANT TO GO?
What: The Happy Clam
Address: 1017 Sophia St. (former site of Barefoot Green’s)
Info: 540/899-0140; thehappyclamfred.com
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday; noon to 8 p.m. Sunday
Prices: Appetizers: $3.50-$14.95 Sandwiches: $9.95-$13.95 Dinner entrées: $16.95-$25.95 Desserts: $4.95 Children’s menu: $5.95-$7.95 Beer and wine are available.
The Scoop: Family-friendly, good food, moderate prices, friendly service, down-home desserts, parking
Payment: Major credit cards accepted
Kurt Rabin: 540/374-5000 email@example.com