Chow Town

Broiled crabcakes leads to culinary ephiphany

The other day, someone commented how cool they thought it was that my wife and I are a couple of foodies. And it got me thinking … what does that mean, anyway?

Personally, I don’t care for the word “foodie.” It can have both a positive and negative meaning, depending on who you ask. In the case of the person who said that to me, I know they meant it positively.

My wife and I really do love experiencing the Kansas City culinary scene, as well as cooking and experimenting with different ingredients at home. But we weren’t always that way. So what happened?

We didn’t become “foodies” on purpose. I’m not sure anyone can. I think it’s more of a natural progression as you experience and learn about food.

However, I must say that I do remember a specific day that probably started me on this foodie journey. It’s a day that changed the way I thought about food, how to prepare it and the advantages of a local approach to it all.

It was in Baltimore, Md. When my wife and I moved there from Kansas City back in the 1990s, we pretty much ate at the same chain restaurants that we had back in Kansas City. You know the ones: TGI Fridays, Applebee’s, Outback, Lone Star, etc. Why? Well, they were familiar to us. They were consistent. And quite frankly, neither of us had a connection to really good cuisine in Kansas City.

As I remember, back then, Hereford House was the best place we could afford (we certainly weren’t in the Peppercorn Duck Club range).

After several months in Baltimore, we started to explore other restaurants. We figured we should see what the locals did. At first what we found was shocking! Can you believe that there were some restaurants that instead of asking if you had reservations, asked when you walked in the door, “Are you going to order crabs?”

It was almost like Baltimore’s version of “Hi, may I help you?” Asking me what I was going to order up front was very jolting. I remember thinking to myself, “Maybe I will or maybe I won’t. Who knows? I haven’t even seen the menu yet. But why are you asking me before I have my first drink?”

Later, I found out the reason: If you were going to order crabs, you were seated in a part of the restaurant where they placed butcher paper on the tables to soak up and catch all of the hammered crab carnage that would eventually take place. If you were not going to order crabs, you were seated in a section where all of the tables were “normal” and the noise level was considerably lower.

One day, we ventured into a local place called Carney Crab House. Not a fancy place by any stretch of the imagination, but you didn’t have to go to a fancy place for good crabs in Baltimore. In fact, it looked more like a place that the 1970s forgot.

Anyway, on this day, I decided I wanted to try crabcakes. I’d had them before in other parts of the country, so I figured that while in Maryland, I should try their crabcakes.

When I ordered, the waitress asked if I wanted the crabcakes broiled or fried. I said, “Fried, of course.” That’s the way you always see them served, not to mention that’s the way it’s taught at the Culinary Institute … pan-fried crabcakes.

After a four second pause and shifting her hip, she said, “Hon, you ain’t from around here are you? ‘Round here, we get ours broiled, and you will too if you know what’s best for you.”

I was doubtful but willing to give it a shot. Hey, she was the local, not me. I figured she should know.

When the crabcake arrived, it looked different than anything I’d seen. This huge mound of lump crabmeat graced my plate, far from the thin little fried puck I was used to. And I was blown away by the flavor. It was all lump meat, with hardly any filler.

The crispiness that was obtained from broiling was amazing and didn’t add another flavor component (oil and coating) to the clean, sweet and delicate crab taste that I was experiencing. My mind was suddenly opened. For one of the first times in my life, I really appreciated the food instead of simply eating it.

That one experience taught me two important lessons: 1) Eating at a locally owned restaurant, I can get better quality food and get a sense of the area’s flavors, and 2) listening to what the staff has to say can open a door to many great encounters.

If we’d not had that shift in awareness, my wife and I may not have had all of the wonderful culinary experiences that we’ve enjoyed over the years as we’ve moved around the country. I can truly say that one plate of crabcakes changed the way we thought about not only eating out, but the way we cook.

And as the years have gone by, we’ve noticed that our palates have changed because of all of those accumulated experiences. It’s just been a slow progression of learning, understanding and gaining appreciation for quality ingredients and various preparation techniques.

Our “adventure level” has also evolved. We eat things now that we wouldn’t even have considered years ago. But as I learned at that Baltimore crab house, if we put our trust in the servers’ suggestions — or the chef’s hands, if given the chance — we receive a much richer experience than we normally would by just ordering what we had in the past.

So my challenge to you is this: Break your habit of going to the same places and neighborhoods that you always do. Try something different, something out of your comfort zone. Trust your server and see what happens.

You may not want to become a foodie, whatever that means, but explore what the Midwest has to offer. Maybe everything won’t be a winner, but I guarantee you’ll have some notable experiences to talk about.

All of this reminiscing really makes me want to take a trip back to Maryland. But alas, Carney Crab House is no more — it burned down in 1999. So do me a favor, and leave a comment below and tell me where I can get a good broiled crab cake in Kansas City. I’m still looking, “Hon.”

This is place that we went to: Carney Crab House.

This is what broiled crab cakes look like: Old Bay Crab Cakes and Crab Cakes.

Craig Jones is a live-fire cooking expert, the Grill Mayor for Food Network (2012), and owner of Savory Addictions Gourmet Nuts. He’s also a certified KCBS BBQ judge, a master student of pizza crafting and an enthusiastic supporter of the greater Kansas City food scene.