Crazy for Crabs

Crazy for Crabs

Get ready for crab season with our guide to crackin' crabs in the Bethesda area

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Diana Rutberg eats steamed crabs for dinner about four times a week when they’re readily available, from May through November. On average, the Potomac resident can polish off a dozen in one sitting, but has been known to eat 18 or 19 at a clip. “I probably eat my weight in crabs,” says Rutberg, who doesn’t even top 100 pounds. “I could pick for hours.”

She’s not alone in her passion for crabs—among our region’s foods, there’s nothing more iconic and beloved than the Maryland blue crab, the official state crustacean. When the weather gets warm, it’s fun to gather with friends for a communal crab feast on the Eastern Shore or at a Baltimore crab house. But what if you’re craving crabs in Montgomery County? What are the options for those who love Old Bay but hate the Bay Bridge? Where are the crabs really coming from? And how do you stage a crab feast once you’ve got them?

Our crab compendium dives into all you need to know.

 

Crackin’ the Maryland Crab Myth

Yen Lee, general manager of the Bethesda Crab House, turns to suppliers outside of Maryland for many of the crabs served at the restaurant. Photo by Skip Brown.

Since crabs are nearly synonymous with Maryland, it’d make sense that the crabs you’re eating here are themselves Marylanders. Sorry to ruin the romance, but a lot of the crabs we get in Montgomery County are not even from the Free State. There are a variety of reasons for this, not the least of which is that crabs are a fresh living product with an unpredictable supply, given weather conditions, water temperatures and migration patterns. The sourcing, availability and price, therefore, can fluctuate daily.

Blue crabs mate and grow in many waters, primarily along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of the U.S. and in areas of Central and South America. While the Chesapeake Bay produces half of the blue crab harvest in the United States, that statistic also includes Virginia. And the quantity isn’t on the upswing. According to the Chesapeake Bay Program, an organization in Annapolis that works to restore and protect the bay, the total number of blue crabs in the Chesapeake has lingered below the long-term average for most of the last two decades.

Another reason we may not be getting Maryland crabs is that consumers in our area prefer large crabs, according to some seafood sellers and restaurateurs. Maryland crabs tend to be small during the spring and summer. They are larger and more locally available in the fall, but that’s when vacations are over and fewer people are gathering for crab feasts.

Maryland crabs often cost more, says Jesse Lowers, a crab salesman at Congressional Seafood Co., a large distributor in Jessup, Maryland, that does business in Montgomery County. Nantucket’s Reef, a restaurant in Rockville, has tried serving Maryland steamed crabs every now and then, but they’ve been “so small, and for the price people pay, they need to see what they’re paying for,” says general manager Katharyne Murphy, who adds that the larger, heavier crabs the restaurant serves from Texas deliver “the most bang for the buck.”

Yen Lee, general manager of the Bethesda Crab House, agrees that the Gulf crabs are bigger and says that 90 percent of the blue crabs served at this Bethesda institution are trucked in from dependable and consistent suppliers in Louisiana and Texas, even during the Maryland crab season.

In addition, the demand for crabs within Maryland is so huge that it couldn’t be satisfied without reinforcements from other states. Crabs are an integral part of our culture, heritage and tourism industry, and everybody knows it.

 

Diners on the patio at the Bethesda Crab House, from left: Xareny Jackson, Ryan Jackson, Pamela Esterson, Maddy Glistand and Patrice Webb. Photo by Skip Brown.

Where to Get ‘Em

Restaurants:

A fixture on Bethesda Avenue since 1961, the Bethesda Crab House has been the go-to joint for tourists, celebrities and generations of local crab lovers. Actresses Kathleen Turner and Jane Lynch, boxer Sugar Ray Leonard and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg have all stopped in. Episodes of reality-television shows have been filmed there (Braxton Family Values and Our Little Family), and Bethesda resident and internationally known chef José Andrés is a regular.

On a busy Saturday night in July, the king of Montgomery County crab places can go through 400 dozen crabs—steamed on the well-worn burners in the restaurant’s kitchen. Only about 10 percent of the crabs served there come from Maryland, and the Bethesda Crab House doesn’t use Old Bay seasoning. Along with some other restaurants, it sprinkles its crabs with seafood seasoning from the J.O. Spice Co. in Halethorpe, Maryland. Bethesda Crab House general manager Yen Lee says the seasoning contains a finer quality paprika and is spicier and less salty than Old Bay.

Bethesda Crab House, 4958 Bethesda Ave., Bethesda, 301-652-3382, bethesdacrabhouse.com

 

More restaurants that serve steamed blue crabs:

Anchor Seafood Place, 11423 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring, 240-669-7136, anchorseafoodplace.com

Live Crawfish & Seafood, 765 Rockville Pike, Suite F-G, Rockville, 301-978-7988, livecrawfishmd.com 

Nantucket’s Reef, 9755 Traville Gateway Drive, Rockville, 301-279-7333, nantucketsreef.com

Urban Crawfish, 670 Quince Orchard Road, Gaithersburg, 240-474-5302, urbancrawfish.com


Cameron (left) and Pey Manesh run Cameron’s Seafood, which sells crabs at its stores and food trucks and also ships them. Photo by Stephanie Williams.

 

Markets:

Cameron’s Seafood is a local seafood institution opened in Rockville in 1985 by brothers Allen and Bijan Manesh. The successful company, now run by their sons—first cousins Cameron and Pey Manesh—includes nine storefront operations in Maryland and Pennsylvania and three food trucks. Last year, the cousins started an online operation, shipping steamed crabs and other seafood around the country. Nine months into the new project, they had already processed more than 1,500 shipments. Contracting directly with crabbers as well as buying crabs from distributors, the company sells more than 75,000 bushels of crabs annually. That high volume, Pey Manesh says, enables Cameron’s to charge less than other sellers. And while Manesh says that wholesale prices can fluctuate daily, a good rule of thumb is that crabs are a better deal Monday through Thursday, when demand is lower, than on weekends and holidays.

Cameron’s Seafood, 875 Hungerford Drive, Rockville, 301-251-1000, cameronsseafood.com

More markets that sell crabs:

Call ahead to make sure crabs are available and to ask about sources and prices; you may need to order in advance.

Dawson’s Market
Live crabs
225 N. Washington St.
(Rockville Town Square), Rockville,
240-428-1386, dawsonsmarket.com 

Giant Food
Live and steamed crabs
From July 4 through Sept. 30, Hooper’s Crab House in Ocean City, Maryland, sells crabs on weekends and holidays from trucks parked outside 12 Giant Food stores in Montgomery County. For a list of locations, see hooperscrabhouse.com/crab-steam-truck-events or Giant’s Facebook page.

Market at River Falls
Steamed crabs
10124 River Road, Potomac, 301-765-8001, marketriverfalls.com

O’Donnell’s Market
Live and steamed crabs
1073 Seven Locks Road, Potomac, 301-251-6355, odonnellsmarket.com 

Potomac Grocer
Live and steamed crabs
10107 River Road, Potomac, 301-299-4200, potomacgrocer.com

Seafood in the Buff
Live and steamed crabs
19201 Frederick Road, Germantown (food truck); 12132 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring (storefront operation), 301-962-9700

Whole Foods Market
Steamed crabs
All stores in Montgomery County

 

Emily Easton got her crab tattoo about seven years ago. Photo by Stephen Walker.

Think Ink

Having grown up on the Eastern Shore, Emily Easton fondly remembers catching crabs every summer. “That’s my big childhood memory,” says the Gaithersburg resident and body piercer at Ambrotos Tattoo in Germantown. So about seven years ago, Easton made those memories indelible by having a 4½-inch-by-3-inch blue crab tattooed on the inside of her arm. She’s far from alone—at Ambrotos Tattoo, the crustacean gets inked on 20 to 30 people a year. Blue crabs are “the most common Maryland-themed tattoo we do,” Easton says.


Maureen Arnson, left, and Mary Gorman with some of the items from their crab collections. Photo by Deb Lindsey.

Everything Crabs

Maureen Arnson comes from a family with a longtime tradition of crab feasts. While some women bond over sewing circles, “we had a crab-picking circle,” says Arnson, who grew up in Chevy Chase. “If something was bothering someone, we’d say, ‘Let’s get together over crabs.’ ”

Arnson’s fondness for crabs is evident in collectibles she owns, including a tic-tac-toe game, hand-painted wine glass, squeaky toy, potholder, dish towel, bracelet, ring, garden mobile and sweatshirt—all decorated with a crab motif. Arnson’s mother, Mary Gorman, has a crab collection that includes jewelry, shoes and a purse.

The scene of their crab klatches is a rustic screened-in porch at the house in Chevy Chase where Gorman and her husband, Timothy, have lived since 1969, and where they’ll host a half dozen or more crab feasts again this summer. Not surprisingly, Arnson hosts her own crab feasts at her home in the Takoma neighborhood of D.C., where she puts many of her tchotchkes to use.

 

Know Your Crabs

Talk like an expert with our guide to crab lingo. 

Illustrations by Nina Clemente.

 

Apron: The abdomen of a crab, which operates like a folded flap. The T-shaped apron of a male crab resembles the Washington Monument; the mature female’s apron looks like the Capitol dome.

Bushel: A basket containing any number of crabs, depending on their size.
The Maryland Department of Natural Resources has a general conversion rate:
One bushel equals 40 pounds or seven dozen crabs. That amount refers to
5½-inch male or female crabs.

Callinectes sapidus: The Greek/Latin scientific name for the Atlantic blue crab. It translates into “savory beautiful swimmer.”

Jimmy: A male crab with blue-tipped claws. It comes in two sizes, No. 1 and No. 2. The No. 1, prized for crab feasts, is larger. The No. 2, sometimes called a “whitey crab,” has recently shed its shell and has less meat. Both jimmies vary in size throughout the season, which runs from April until November or December.

Molt: The process by which a crab grows by shedding its shell for a new one; this can happen more than 20 times. Male crabs molt throughout their lifetimes, while females stop molting when they reach sexual maturity.

Mustard: The gelatinous yellow matter found inside a cooked crab. It’s the crab’s hepatopancreas, the digestive gland that filters impurities from the crustacean’s blood. Depending on the waters from which the crab was harvested, it can contain contaminants, so to be on the safe side many people avoid eating it.

Picking: The act of removing the meat from a crab.

Sally: An immature female crab that has not yet mated. It has a triangular-shaped apron and reddish-orange-tipped claws.

Softshells: Crabs less than 12 hours after molting. (It takes two to three days for the shell to fully harden again.)

Sook: A mature female crab, with reddish-orange-tipped claws. According to Cameron’s Seafood, sooks tend to have denser meat than jimmies.

 

Crabs As Art

When Karen Hardeman opens the front door of her townhouse in the Kentlands neighborhood of Gaithersburg, the first thing she sees are crabs. Four pieces of crab artwork and a ceramic crab hang vertically from top to bottom of the foyer wall. “It’s the very favorite part of my house,” Hardeman says. “It makes me happy to look at them.” Aside from being the symbol for Hardeman’s astrological sign of Cancer, crabs are a favorite food. From softshells to crabcakes to crab balls, “I just love crabs,” she says.

A wall in Karen Hardeman’s foyer is covered in crab-themed art. Photo by Stephen Walker.

 

How to Steam Crabs

Put an inch or two of cold water at the bottom of a crab pot, making sure it doesn’t touch the steamer rack. (Alternately, you can use any combination of water, beer, vinegar and/or Old Bay.) Bring liquid to a boil. Using tongs or gloves, layer live crabs in the pot, generously sprinkling Old Bay or other seasoning on each layer. Cover and cook for 20 to 30 minutes. Do not keep checking crabs as they cook, as that will release the steam. Crabs are done when they turn bright reddish-orange.

How to Pick Crabs

Illustrations and Text by Jackie Maloney.
 

How to Stage a Crab Feast

Crab mallets, tables covered in brown paper, and buckets for shells are among the essentials for hosting a crab feast. Photo courtesy of Michael Urgo.

For advice on how to cook live creatures with sharp pincers (and serve them with finesse), we went to the experts—the Capital Crab Co. (capitalcrab.com), co-founded by Tim Walsh and Michael Urgo. The two childhood friends, who grew up in Potomac, run a food truck and catering business, and aside from home events, stage crab feasts at weddings, fundraisers, office parties and more. They handle any or all of the logistics, from setup to cleanup, along with side dishes and on-site cooking. And they’re well suited for the task: Walsh worked at the Bethesda Crab House for about a decade, and Urgo managed restaurants while working for Urgo Hotels & Resorts, his family’s Bethesda-based business. The two also have ownership stakes in several metro-area restaurants.

For advice on how to cook live creatures with sharp pincers (and serve them with finesse), we went to the experts—the Capital Crab Co. (capitalcrab.com), co-founded by Tim Walsh and Michael Urgo. The two childhood friends, who grew up in Potomac, run a food truck and catering business, and aside from home events, stage crab feasts at weddings, fundraisers, office parties and more. They handle any or all of the logistics, from setup to cleanup, along with side dishes and on-site cooking. And they’re well suited for the task: Walsh worked at the Bethesda Crab House for about a decade, and Urgo managed restaurants while working for Urgo Hotels & Resorts, his family’s Bethesda-based business. The two also have ownership stakes in several metro-area restaurants.

 

Here are Urgo’s directions for staging a crab feast:

Get the proper cooking equipment. That means a big pot with a lid and a steaming rack or basket on the bottom, and long tongs or thick rubber gloves for transporting the crabs to the pot and taking them out.

Determine how many crabs you’ll need. Capital Crab recommends four to six large crabs per person, or five to seven medium crabs. But at every crab feast, there’s always someone who knocks off a dozen, and another guest who can handle only two, Urgo says.

Cover a sturdy table with brown paper. Urgo recommends avoiding glass tables because all it takes is one miss with a mallet (it’s happened). Brown paper is cleaner, looks better and lasts longer than newspaper, which is thinner and can bleed ink.

Organize each place setting. 
Each person should have a crab mallet and thin crab knife or paring knife to help remove the shell. Set out individual ramekins with apple cider vinegar, melted butter and extra Old Bay or other seafood seasoning.

Consider handheld side dishes. These include corn on the cob, spiced shrimp and hush puppies. Coleslaw is popular, but that means forks with messy fingers.

Put shell buckets on the table. 
Urgo says anything from flower pots or mixing bowls to 12-pack beer boxes or wine buckets will do.

Have plenty of hand wipes. 
Set out several rolls of paper towels, and distribute moist towelettes after the feast.

Buy thick contractor trash bags for cleanup. Crab shells are sharp and will cut through thinner bags, which also can be an ineffective barrier against smells, particularly on a hot day. Without heavy bags, Urgo says, “it can get stinky.”

 

3 Great Crabcakes

?

The crabcake sandwich at O’Donnell’s Market in Potomac.

Decidedly less messy than picking crabs yourself, crabcakes are on many menus in our area. But if you think your favorite patty is made from Maryland crabmeat, think again. Only a small number of restaurants in Maryland make their crabcakes from local crabmeat, says the Maryland Department of Agriculture. “For years it has been an open secret that many ‘Maryland crabcakes’ may be Maryland-style, but not necessarily with Maryland, or even American, crabmeat,” says the department’s website. So in 2012, the state developed a logo and promotional program called True Blue, which identifies restaurants and other establishments that are selling crabmeat from Maryland blue crabs. It now has 155 members throughout the state, with a handful from Montgomery County. (For a complete listing, see seafood.maryland.gov/true-blue-maryland-crab-meat.) The following restaurants are not part of the program, but make notable crabcakes nonetheless. After all, Maryland crabmeat doesn’t guarantee a chef’s success.

The Grilled Oyster Co.
Owner Rick Dugan’s 16-year-old daughter, Olivia, prompted a redo of the restaurant’s crabcake, insisting it had “too much stuff” and needed to be simpler. The no-frills reincarnation incorporates big, visible clumps of jumbo lump, barely held together with a touch of gluten-free panko, mayonnaise, Old Bay, Dijon and pepper. Dugan says he often ends up with crabmeat from North Carolina, and sometimes Alabama, Louisiana or Venezuela, or Maryland if he can get it. The 5-ounce broiled patty is available in a sandwich or set alongside a grainy mustard-fennel sauce and a corn-and-cucumber succotash, in what turns out to be a delicious idea.
7943 Tuckerman Lane, Potomac, 301-299-9888, thegrilledoystercompany.com

Nantucket’s Reef
The restaurant’s Crab “No” Cake is true to its name, with large knobs of broiled jumbo lump that are very lightly bound. “If you want cake, go to the baker,” jokes general manager Katharyne Murphy, who says the restaurant’s blue crabmeat comes from a variety of locales, depending on the quality and market price. That means there’s no Maryland crabmeat, which Murphy says is “significantly” more expensive—anywhere from $6 to $12 more per pound than crabmeat from other sources. “At that point, we’d be charging $80 for a crabcake dinner,” she says. Nantucket’s Reef’s entrée is $19.55 for a 5-ounce crabcake and two sides. And they don’t have to be the ubiquitous coleslaw and french fries—they could be roasted and flash-fried Brussels sprouts, grilled corn on the cob or other options. Just ask.
9755 Traville Gateway Drive, Rockville, 301-279-7333, nantucketsreef.com

O’Donnell’s Market 
In the seafood business for nearly 100 years, O’Donnell’s should know how to nail a great crabcake, and it does. Mixed with mayonnaise, egg and other ingredients that owner Bill Edelblut would “prefer not to tell,” the interior has a nice creaminess, the jumbo lump crabmeat is fresh tasting and generous, and if you order the sandwich, it comes on a grilled brioche roll with terrific house-made tartar sauce. Edelblut (grandson of founder Tom O’Donnell) says he’s tried Venezuelan crabmeat but sticks with domestic products from North Carolina, Virginia or Maryland. The 5-ounce crabcakes at O’Donnell’s can be eaten at the tables or counter at the market, and they’re available for carryout in a special container that goes right in the oven.
1073 Seven Locks Road, Potomac, 301-251-6355, odonnellsmarket.com 

Contributing editor Carole Sugarman lives in Chevy Chase.

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