I had to go to Baltimore for work. As far as I know, this and to watch the Red Sox beat the Orioles are the only two reasons people go to Baltimore. Sadly for Sox fans the tables have turned leaving just business travelers in the city. Knowing I would be without a car or much free time, I began looking for something special to eat. Quickly I settled on crab cakes. I had eaten them at BWI while waiting for a flight. I suspected that given the affection people in the Chesapeake Bay feel for crab, they must have something better than the bready, oily mess I had in the terminal. Don’t misunderstand me. I have had great crab cakes at Boston restaurants, often with a rich roasted red pepper sauce, but I wanted to taste the authentic Maryland version.
I can’t recommend Baltimore for a food vacation. The Inner Harbor is dotted with chains that you can find almost anywhere. Without a car you can’t get to a good crab shack or pit beef stand. That left me with only one choice for my side trip, Faidley Seafood in historic Lexington Market. Faidley’s was for many years regarded as the top spot for crab cakes in Baltimore and perhaps the world. Today, however, reviews for Faidley’s are mixed and so are the ones for Lexington Market. Faidley’s complaints are mostly of the “ain’t what it used to be variety”. Lexington Market’s go something more like this:
If you go to Lexington Market you will die. Homeless drug addicts guard the doors and demand you turn over your children in exchange for a crab cake. This is the single scariest place on earth.
You think I’m kidding. Look it up on TripAdvisor. Did you look? See, told you. Well anyway I have never let death stand in the way of tasty food so leaving everything from my wallet at the hotel except for twenty dollars and my driver’s license I began the march uphill from the Hilton to what was likely to be my last meal. Now if you only feel safe at the Natick Mall or Plaza Frontinac, you should not go to Lexington Market. But then again maybe you shouldn’t leave the house. For me it was fine. I would even take my four-year-old nephew there without fear of having to trade him for a crab cake. It’s urban. It’s gritty. It’s probably not the place to wear your finest diamond. But it isn’t a place that you should avoid.
Laughing at myself and wishing I had more money with me I wandered around the market. It is old and run down, but there were a bunch of booths that I would have loved to try if I had more cash with me or I was staying in Baltimore longer. There was a Greek booth and a Soul Food booth. (Curiously both were run by Asian women.) There was also fried chicken, meat shops, delis, bakery counters, a soap counter, which I don’t get, and even a sushi bar.
After seeing it all I headed back to Faidley Seafood. By the way it has its own entrance if you get too scared of the rest of the market. There are three types of Crab cakes, but the only ones worth eating are the jumbo lump. I ordered one crab cake, which was huge, and a coke for fifteen bucks. The crab cake was served with some lettuce, tomato, and saltine crackers. I don’t get the crackers. I never opened them. There are no chairs at Faidley’s. You eat standing at a high table, but the crab cake was so good I didn’t care. I ate it so fast there wasn’t time for me to get tired of standing. It was sweet. Not sugary sweet, that mild shellfish sweetness that too often disappears behind other ingredients. The pieces of crab were big, about half the size of my thumb. There were a few bites overpowered by the crackers they use as binder. But most had only a subtle hint of mayo, leaving the crab as the star and the additions to create a perfect balance. Some complain that there is not enough seasoning in these cakes, but two-thirds of the way through mine I noticed sauce on the table. For a brief moment I thought I should try it so I could write about. I didn’t and a minute later my crab cake was gone. Before leaving Lexington Market, I headed back to a bakery counter and snagged Berger cookies too, but that’s another story.
If there is one thing I learned here, it’s that I never really had a crab cake before. What I thought was a crab cake all my life has nothing to do with what I ate that morning. Now I’m not from Baltimore, but if Faidley’s doesn’t make the best crab cake in town I might have to visit more often and I’ll bring my nephew.
Faidley Seafood World Famous Lexington Market
203 North Paca Baltimore, Maryland 21201