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May 5, 2009

Top 10 Restaurants to Get Soft Shell Crabs



You don't have to be a native Marylander to appreciate the crunch of little legs, but it helps. People who are new to the area sometimes look in horror at even the most beautiful platter of soft-shell crabs, and the sandwich with the little legs dangling out seems particularly repellent to them. Especially when the yellow fat, otherwise known as the mustard, oozes out.

That's OK, as one commenter said under an earlier post. More for us.

Here's my list of 10 delicious preparations of soft-shells in alphabetical order. It should give you a range of options. If you're new to our Top 10 Tuesday lists, please read the Official Disclaimer before you comment. ...

* Asian, French and Baltimore-inspired crab cake and tempura soft crab finished with wasabi cream at Alizee in Tuscany/Canterbury (pictured).

* Dusted with flour and Old Bay rub (contains a little brown sugar) and sauteed, finished with basil aioli at Annabel Lee Tavern in Canton.

* Lightly tempura fried or sauteed with a Creole mustard drizzle at Catonsville Gourmet in Catonsville.

* Grilled soft shells served with tomato and corn relish or crunchy (fried) polenta at Chameleon Cafe in Lauraville.

* Lightly deep fried or pan fried to make it crispy and golden with an Old Bay and mustard  hollandaise at La Famiglia in Tuscany/Canterbury.

* Tempura soft crabs with succotash of sweet corn and butter beans and charred heirloom tomato emulsion at Ixia in Mount Vernon.

* A great soft-shell crab sandwich can be had at Kibby's on Wilkins Avenue across from St. Agnes Hospital.

* Crispy fried soft-shell crabs with a choice of chili, basil, garlic sauce or black bean, mushroom, ginger sauce at Lemongrass in Annapolis.

* Panko-crusted deep-fried with an arugula-frisee salad with a lemon vinaigrette is one of several varieties at the Oceanaire Seafood Room in Harbor East.

* Dipped in corn flour, pan fried and served with a whole-grain mustard sauce and angel hair zucchini at the Oregon Grille in Cockeysville.

(Jed Kirschbaum/Sun photographer)

Posted by Elizabeth Large at 4:44 AM | | Comments (50)
Categories: Top Ten Tuesdays


Mmmmm--great list, Elizabeth!

Brave newcomers should also know that soft-shell crabs are not available year-round. They are a seasonal delicacy, so enjoy them when you can!

I've only tried softshell crabs once, and was incredibly un-impressed. I think I'll pick from this list for my next try... always try something twice.

The Oregon Grille "Whole Grain Mustard Sauce" is really a whole Grain Mustard and Scallion Burre Blanc, its buttery goodness...delicious.

Not a big fan of softshell crabs myself, but my source says Thai Landing has a killer version that customers cannot have enough of.

It was part of a special beer dinner for Clipper City last year, but I had a great softshell at Red Star. My friend who hasn't been in the area quite as long said "oh, isn't it cute?!? They put the crab meat back in the shape of a crab before they fried it!" When I told her what a softshell was, she visibly gagged for a bit, chose to pretend she didn't hear me, and finished it.

I do think they are an acquired taste... or a little ignorance may be better first. The legs do still bother me.

Eh, I've never been a fan of soft crabs. Partially because I don't really want to eat all those legs, and partially because of the "mustard." (Which is actually the crab's hepatopancreas- and I traffic in organ goo even less than organ meat.)

I alluded to this on the post about The Prime Rib. I had their soft shell crabs as an entree once when I dined there, and I'm telling you they were the absolute BEST I have ever had. They were barely dredged with just a dusting of flour and simply sauteed. They were absolutely perfect. Melt in your mouth delicious.

I know, I know, what in the world provoked me to order them at a prime steakhouse?? Especially someone like me who LOVES juicy red meat! Well, I was invited there for a celebration dinner, and I had eaten steak several times that week. I just wasn't in the mood for another steak. I'm glad I made the choice I did because I love soft crabs. I would definitely go there to eat the soft shells again.

Which is actually the crab's hepatopancreas- and I traffic in organ goo even less than organ meat

Organ Goo Week? Nah...probably not enough separate topics. Maybe an Organ Goo Weekend...

Perhaps some suggestions for where to find a lightly dusted with flour, sauteed in butter till crisp, soft crab on the Eastern Shore? Why, O why can't these folks, here, on MES learn to do seafood the way it should be done??? It's such a shame to deep fry a soft crab in batter. The delicate flavor disappears completely.

The "mustard" is the best part of the soft crab.

Buy 'em yourself. Fry in butter. Serve on toasted white bread with lettuce, tomato and mayo. Enjoy, this ain't rocket science!

Rich at Magerk's has an unbelievable soft shell crab wrap!

I haven't had them, but folks I trust have said that the soft shell crabs at the Kings Contrivance Restaurant in Columbia are very good.

Right on, MDR!! The crab dishes listed above were obviously not devised by Marylanders. When it comes to soft shell crabs, as with crab cakes, less is better. The rest are yuppie imposters.

For real.....why all the fancy schmancy....the best soft crabs don't need all the fuss and muss...just fry em' up in the pan with a lil butter flour and old bay slap them on some bread with lettuce and tomato and your choice of condiment..i prefer couldn't pay me to eat any of the dishes above...way too she she fu fu for a true marylander!

Soft shells are my favorite crab. However, I like them the way my mother fixed them. Simply sauted in butter and drizzled with lemon. No batter. In restaurants, I always have to ask how they are prepared before I order.

I don't know if Tall Oaks in Pasadena still exists, but, they had a GREAT fried soft shell platter.

Best restaurant soft crabs I ever had were--no kidding--from the late, lamented Mencken's Cultured Pearl, before they went exclusively Mexican. Simply dredged in Old Bay-seasoned flour and fried in butter, they sold them for a song. But I agree that DIY is the way to go, especially if you buy them live for maximum freshness and clean them yourself. (It's a cinch: cut off the mouth and eyes with kitchen shears; gently lift the shell's side points and pick out the deadmen; then you're good to go.)

I confess that while I am a native Marylander, I just can't quite bring myself to enjoy soft shell crabs. I think it has something to do with coming downstairs one morning while visiting my grandmother in Salisbury and finding my dad sitting at the table about to take a bit out of the face of a whole crab on two pieces of bread. Quite a delicacy for him (she drove to Crisfield at 5 a.m. or something just to buy them off the boat - what a mother won't do!), quite a shock for me! I don't think I've ever recovered... ;-)

Eighteen years ago when I first moved to Maryland from my native New York, I decided I should live like a local by trying the softshell crab sandwich. I had no idea how it would arrive on my plate. I'm me it was like a spider had been fried and placed on my plate! I sent it back to the kitchen and had them chop it up before returning it to me. Needless to say, I didn't eat much of it.

The best soft crab I ever ate was one we prepared while a boating trip on Chesapeake. We scoured the grasses in the shallow areas around St. Michaels looking for soft crabs. We only found one peeler crab that looked like it would shed soon. We placed in pail of bay water in the shade on the boat deck and for about an hour we watched the creature slough off the old shell. Their new body is about 1/3 larger than the old so for it to get out it really had to struggle to out, using strong contractions much like giving birth.

As soon as the show was over, we immediately cleaned it as the new hard shell starts to harden immediately but slowly. Iwent directly to a skillet in the galley and was sauteed in butter to a perfect GBD state.

It was placed on toasted bread with ripe summer tomato slices and a little mayo and pepper. Four of us had to split it, but it was incredibly good and memorable.

I ordered the soft shell crab @ Lemongrass (Downtown) several weeks ago and they were bad. Bad as in probably about a week beyond their expiration date. It was dissapointing since the sauces that they come with were so good.

During the summer, Birches Restaurant in Canton serves a delicious soft shell crab sandwhich.

I wonder why catching a trout and cooking it over a campfire sounds good to me, but LEC's story makes me squeemish?

My favorite has always been the soft-shell crab roll special at Niwana. Two soft shell crabs, fried tempura-style and wrapped in seaweed like a waffle cone, one with a spicy sauce and another with a sweet sauce. Very tasty.

Best soft crabs ever are the ones you net off the pilings of the pier(doublers) .Mom cleans them, dredges in a bit of flour and sautes them in a bit of butter. As she is doing that find a nice ripe warm tomato from the garden.
Plain old white Koesters bread, some mayo, a slice or two of the tomato and a bit of iceberg lettuce.
The only thing better than one of those is two of them!!!

LEC, your soft shell sandwich sounds positively mouth watering! I don't know wht sounded better - the fresh soft shell or the fresh summer tomatoes!

I don't know the last time that you were actually at Kibby's but it is not a great place anymore. It has dropped below being "old Baltimore" charming to basically being a dump. I can no longer endorse recommendations for any of their food - including what was once the best shrimp salad in town.

Why do you insist on call soft crabs by the moniker soft shell crabs. It betrays the fact that you must be a non-native if you call them that. The list sounds delectable.

Risa -

I can totally relate, I have serious spider fear too. My first experience with soft crabs was as a child; my mother ordered a sandwich when we were out at lunch. She had me take a bite, and I guess I didn't bite through enough because I pulled away and had a bunch of battered legs dangling from my mouth. It took me years to recover from this trauma and to give them another try.

Growing up at my Grandfathers shore on the Bay, we ate softcrabs fried, on whitebread with lettuce tomatoe and mayonaise. These odd receipes are from the growing non native population.

i agree with most of you, "less is best". dredged in flour, salt & pepper and i use dry mustard too. sauteed in butter. if you have a fresh soft shell, and it is loaded inside with good mustard, that's all you need.

i don't like the heavy battered stuff. and i also have a great memory of my grandmother cutting off the eyes and preparing them to be cooked.

What a shame to hear about about Kibby's. Their shrimp salad was fantastic. When we come to Baltimore my wife and I always stop at Kibby's for lunch. It's been a few years however, I guess things change.

I agree soft crabs should only be lightly dusted with flour, salt, pepper then quickly sautéed in butter till nice and crisp. You can keep the wasabi cream, and the Creole mustard drizzle, just give me a little Hellmans mayo, some fresh eastern shore tomato, a little lettuce between two pieces of white bread, ahh that's heaven.

Had a good soft crab sandwich at Angler's in Ocean City last summer. I used to get good soft crab sandwiches at Hale's Carryout on Taylor Ave. However I hear they have closed or been sold.

gina, did your grandmother serve the eyes with little spectacles?

I have lived in Baltimore for most of my life, and my parents and grandparents lived there all of their lives. And they always called them soft-shell crabs. Maybe "soft crabs" is an Eastern Shore thing?

Before I relocated down here, I worked for several years in Stevensville and never heard them called "soft crabs". Even the old dude on the radio commercials for Harris Crab House never called them that.

I more remember them being called "peelers", but that was in markets and roadside trucks to buy them rather than in restaurants.

I echo the others: my folks just dredged their soft shell crabs in a bit of flour and Old Bay and then fried them. Put them on some white bread (Hauswald's Holsum), with some iceberg lettuce and some tomato (from their garden hopefully), salt, and pepper.

Hale's is closed?? They were always a good source of crabs in the summer.
Don's Crabs up on Joppa wasn't bad either, but I don't know about their soft shells.

Brave newcomers should also know that soft-shell crabs are not available year-round. They are a seasonal delicacy, so enjoy them when you can!

True that soft-shell crabs aren't available all season, but from what I understand is that crabs slough their shells every five weeks or so. So during the summertime, soft-shells should become available several times.

But I agree, they aren't around all the time. Maybe a crabber/waterman could chime in and let us know?

My first softshell was in my hometown of Brooklyn NY. Nathans Famous of Coney Island (Yes, the hotdog place) used to do a nice deep fried one on toast with tarter sauce.

These babies are perhaps the greatest treat the Chesapeake can offer!

PCB Rob - Yes I read somewhere that Hales closed. We used to live in Carrol Co. and would drive down on a Saturday afternoon, get soft crab sandwiches at Hales then go to Readings & Greetings to browse the books. A nice way to spend an afternoon.

Gertrude's at the BMA has an awesome soft shell sandwich - way simpler than all that stuff above. It would be a special only when they could get them. Yum.

So I went to Catonsville Gourmet last night to get some soft shells. The only choice was tempura. So I broke my rule of never ordering tempura fried soft shells. Too much batter to crab. Big mistake. I regretted my choice. Just say no to tempura. I will stick to sauteed only from now on. Back to the rules.

When I was a wee lad, back in the late 60s early 70s, I remember arabbers coming through Hamilton. Besides fruits and vegetables, they also had crabs. I remember they were either "soft crabs", or "hart crabs".

PCB Rob and Jack - Actually Pappas across the street bought Hales. I have not had anything from there since the switch. But from what I understand, Pappas has a very good crab cake, so hopefully the rest of the seafood is decent also.

Oh, and Jack, Greetings and Readings has moved out to Cockeysville.

Hale's was bought by Pappas across the street and is now Pappa's Seafood, Mr. Hale gave them all of his original recipes.

PCB Rob wrote: "...but from what I understand is that crabs slough their shells every five weeks or so. So during the summertime, soft-shells should become available several times."

I'm not a waterman, but a restaurateur / water(wo)man near the Ocean City commercial harbor told me that summertime crab molting coincides with the new moon. The darkness, presumably, offers some cover for the the vulnerable peelers. I've never verified that, but I have no reason to disbelieve.

I was curious so I googled "when do crabs molt" and found a good article about the whole process. Turns out, crabs shed their hard shells for a new one when they have outgrown the old one, not necessarily to coincide with new moons.

Blue Crab Growth and Molting

Hon & Trixe - thanks for the info about Hales, i'm anxious to try the new place. As to readings & greetings, I guess it was only a matter of time before they out grew the Loch Raven Blvd. location. Where are they in Cockysville? I love that store.

Jack, G & R is in the Hunt Valley Mall compound. I don't know the last time you were there, but it (the mall) has changed a lot!! That is where Wegmans is also.

We are going to try and make the trip down to Crab Town this summer to get our crab fix. We will check out R&G. We usually stay at the Hunt Valley Marriott. Haven't been down for a few years. We did go to OC the last two summers, but I miss Baltimore.

Dear All, the food at Pappas (nee Hale's) is as good as ever. You can buy it raw to cook at home, or they'll cook it for you--the menu is full of platters of all kinds. It's wunnerful!

Back in the late 60's, early 70's, Hale's used to employ a bunch of women who picked crabs to get the crabmeat for the crabcakes. I'd be willing to bet that isn't done on site nowadays.

PCB Rob--
Interesting link on crab molting you found. Thanks for posting. The sub-link on molting and lunar cycles cites anecdotal evidence from commercial watermen supporting a connection (mostly to full moon, with some to new moon), but then expresses skepticism. I think regional scientists acknowledge that there's a lot about the crab fishery we don't know.

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About this blog
Richard Gorelick was appointed The Baltimore Sun's restaurant critic in September 2010. Before joining the paper staff fulltime, he contributed freelance criticism and features articles about food to area and regional publications. Along the way, he dispatched for short-distance trucking companies, shilled for cultural non-profits, and assisted in cognitive neurology research – never the subject, always the control.

He takes restaurants seriously but not himself, and his favorite restaurant is the one you love, too.

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