I'm often asked by visitors for the best place to go for local crabs. Upon further questioning, it usually turns out that what they have in mind is one of those places where they dump whole steamed crabs out on newspapers and you crack them open with big wooden mallets. Charleston, I have to explain, just isn't that kind of town. If you want to get down and dirty and ruin your clothes with shellfish juice, we've got oyster roasts and Lowcountry boils. All the trappings are there: big gas burners and steamer pots, the long improvised tables covered with newspapers. We bring out big silver baskets of steaming-hot oysters and fat pink shrimp and dump them out on the tables for diners to attack. But few folks ever seem to throw in a few bushels of crabs.
The reason for that is simple: this is Charleston, not Baltimore. Up on the Chesapeake, the crab harvests are huge, amounting to a third of all blue crabs caught nationwide. Maryland watermen bring in 70 million pounds of crabs a year. In South Carolina, that number is just 5.5 million pounds. We don't have the sheer volume of crustaceans that would lead one to mound them on plastic trays and bang at them with mallets. But the blue crabs from local waters are every bit as sweet and fresh, and there are plenty of delicious ways to sample these delicacies.
Charleston Grill Crab Cake ($17)
224 King St.
Charleston's signature crab dish is she-crab soup, which dates back to the early 20th century and can be found on dozens of menus around town. A close second to the soup these days is the crab cake, which is almost as omnipresent in local restaurants as shrimp and grits. Local cakes run the gamut from gooey, sloppy concoctions so filled with cheese that the crab is an afterthought all the way to delicate, crab-centric creations that rely on the pure flavor of fresh blue crab.
Perhaps the best example of the latter is the Charleston Grill Crab Cake ($17). It's made with almost totally pure lump meat and hardly a trace of binder or filling. The crab gets just a thin coating of a buttery breading on the top and bottom and is then seared a dark golden brown. The cake is topped with a lime-tomato vinaigrette made from multicolored cherry tomatoes, which add a tangy accompaniment, plus, as a bonus, two of the sweetest, most delicate creek shrimp you'll ever taste. Swimming in a pool of warm butter-laden sauce with a touch of lime, it's a decadently rich and tender treat.
Deep-Fried Crab ($1.45 ea/$15 dozen)
3832 Savannah Hwy.
For a completely different crab experience, it's worth a drive south of town on Highway 17 to Fishnet Seafood. Located in an old gas station with bars over the windows, Fishnet specializes in hand-breaded fried fish, and it's take-out only. A highly religious establishment, they serve "Jesus crabs" rather than deviled crab, but the real draw for crab lovers are the fried hard-shells. They remove the top shell, soak the rest of the crab in butter, then batter and fry it right there as you wait. Like up in Baltimore, you'll have to get your hands messy and pick out the tender white meat yourself, but Fishnet will make you see the light and trade that steampot for a fry basket.
Fried Lump Crab Fritters ($12)
Neil Jordan's Steakhouse
1121 Oakland Market Road
The deep fryer, in fact, is where much of the city's crab ends up. Once you have a bowl full of deviled crab, after all, it's a natural next step to bread it and drop it in some hot grease. One of the better fried crab dishes around is the crab fritters out at Neil Jordan's Steakhouse in Mt. Pleasant. The thin rectangular plate holds three golden-brown orbs, each perched on a circle of Old Bay-flavored tartar sauce. The breading is light and crisp, and inside, the crab is soft and gooey and studded with a lot of black pepper. It's a great appetizer to share, and it will go fast.
Crab Cakes Benedict ($15)
199 East Bay St.
Charlestonians find nothing wrong with seafood for breakfast. Just as they transformed shrimp and grits — traditionally a breakfast dish — into a gourmet dinner item, our New Southern chefs are making crab into a staple of the breakfast and brunch menus, too. Eggs Benedict, that hangover-relieving stack of English muffins, poached eggs, and hollandaise, is great by itself; in Charleston, it's de rigueur to top them off with golden crab cakes. At High Cotton, which has earned a reputation for having one of the best Sunday brunches around, they substitute fried green tomatoes for the English muffin on their Crab Cakes Benedict ($15), combining two Southern staples into a single satisfying breakfast dish.
Jumbo Lump Crab ($14.50)
Amen Street Fish and Raw Bar
205 E. Bay St.
Lump crab meat is the best part of the crab, taken from the muscles inside the shell that connect with the legs. The jumbo lump — the two largest muscles, which power the crab's rear swimming fins — are the biggest and sweetest portions of all. That sweetness is on grand display in the crab cocktail at Amen Street Fish and Raw Bar. It's simply a bowl lined with a few strips of green apple then filled with pure white jumbo lump meat. The crab is super chilled, making for a cool, refreshing bite, and it's served with a small bowl of Louis dressing. This classic dressing, which originated on the West Coast as part of the Dungeness-based Crab Louis Salad, is brilliant with blue crab, too. The tartness of the green apples add a nice contrast, but the star of the show is the rich, fresh lump crab.
Blue Crab Excursion ($38)
Barrier Island Eco Tours
50 41st Ave.
Isle of Palms
For the full-on blue crab experience, nothing beats catching and cooking them yourself. If you're fortunate to have access to a house with a dock on a marsh creek, a couple of wire-mesh crab traps will do the trick. Or you can do it the old-fashioned way with a chicken neck tied to a hand line and a net to scoop up the crab once it gets close enough. If you need a little guidance, Barrier Island Eco Tours offers a Blue Crab Excursion that will not only teach you about the biology of the blue crab and how to catch them with a hand line, but it also wraps up with a big crab boil right on the beach on Capers Island.
Regardless of whether you catch it and cook it yourself or let the pros do it for you, blue crab is the taste of summertime in Charleston, and from high-end jumbo lump to whole fried hard-shells, the options are rich and rewarding.