By Van Smith
Published in City Paper, May 16, 2012
This looks to be a banner year for crab lovers. According to the Chesapeake Bay Program, Maryland’s and Virginia’s annual winter-dredge survey results, released in April, showed a two-thirds increase in the Bay’s crab population over last year, when about 67 million pounds of crabs were harvested. If this year’s harvest increases by the same ratio, it could outstrip even 2010’s blockbuster harvest of 92 million pounds.
Regardless of the harvest, though, an intense and longstanding crab-selling rivalry in Southwest Baltimore tends to benefit buyers. It’s known as “Crab Corner,” where three crab houses—Bay Island Seafood Carry Out (1903 W. Pratt St.,  566-0200), Sea Pride Crab House (201 S. Monroe St.,  624-3222), and Always Cooking Best Crabs (225 N. Monroe St.,  233-5804)—compete near the intersection of West Pratt and South Monroe streets, infusing the surroundings with the mouth-watering scent of steamed crabs.
According to Gary Moree, co-owner of Bay Island, which is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year and sold 31,000 bushels of crabs in 2010, landing it the No. 2 slot on the Baltimore Business Journal’s list of the largest crab houses in the Baltimore area, Crab Corner’s patrons are mostly from the surrounding neighborhoods, and the prices are as low as they go.
“We sell extra-large males for $60 or $65 [a dozen] right now,” Moree said during a recent visit, “but at places out in the suburbs and on the waterfront, they’ll go for more like $90. We can only charge so much, because our customers can’t spend that much.”
The cut-throat competition for this thin-walleted clientele is evident in the crab houses’ marketing strategies. Bay Island’s motto, “Can’t Be Beat,” is printed on its plastic carryout bags, which also feature its mascot, a fierce-looking crab wearing boxing gloves. At Best Crabs, a hand-painted sign out front reads, “Bigger Better Over Here,” and one inside claims that “nothing will make ‘their’ crabs taste better.”
This smack-talking tone, appropriately enough, is reminiscent of a mind-set known as “the crab mentality,” inspired by the behavior live crabs display when put en masse into pots. As individual crabs try to escape, others grab at them and pull them back, ensuring that all share in their collective fate. In the case of the crabs, that fate is the steamer; in the case of the Crab Corner carryouts, it is relatively low prices for crabs—a plus for customers, who rave about all three places in online reviews.
“I’ve had a lot of crab claiming to be Maryland crab, but I have yet to have crab like this!” writes one Bay Island reviewer, adding that the “seasoning is amazing! Perfectly blended, perfectly spicy!” Another says “this place is really a locals’ joint due to the somewhat sketchy location, but the service is friendly and generous and the crabs are a decent size and good eating.”
Best Crabs gets concise, thumbs-up treatment: “Crabs are steamed hot and are very good!!!” writes one, while another adds, “Good crabs, cheap,” and yet another confirms the boast in the name: “The crabs there are the best.”
Sea Pride’s secret spice earns its special treatment, including the ringing endorsement of a long-traveling customer from Virginia, who says, “any time we have a crab feast we drive to Baltimore” to get them, and that “no others compare to Sea Pride,” where “the spice they use is not Old Bay, they won’t give you the recipe, but it really makes these crabs.” Another reviewer jokes that “here you can kill two birds with one stone” because you “can buy crabs and crack on the same block,” but contends that Sea Pride’s crabs “are so far above good that you will find yourself here the next day.”
On a recent visit to Crab Corner, City Paper went to each crab house and asked for the same thing: “a dozen of your largest males.” This uniform request resulted in three vastly different orders, though all of them were generous in terms of crab counts, which far exceeded a dozen. Sea Pride quickly handed over a $30 bag of reheated crabs. Bay Island charged $40 for a bag, also reheated. At Best Crabs, a bag of freshly steamed crabs cost $60, plus a long wait while they cooked. The more money spent, the heavier the bag.
All who shared in eating them agreed on how to rank the quality. The best, most meaty, and largest were the pricey, freshly steamed ones from Best Crabs. Next up was Sea Pride’s, which were perfectly good for being reheated, followed by Bay Island’s, which were soggy and nothing to brag about.
The experience at Bay Island suggests that patrons interested in the biggest possible crabs should press about their availability, because Moree, after learning that City Paper was there doing an article, said he had some huge ones for $65 a dozen. The request for the largest available males, though, had already been taken, and yielded the lackluster $40 bag.
A famous aficionado of Crab Corner culture, former Sun scribe and The Wire producer David Simon, says in a recent e-mail from New Orleans that he misses Sea Pride, which is his favorite. Simon worked there for a few days in the 1990s because Gary McCullough, the late protagonist of The Corner, in which Simon explored the tragic hopelessness of the drug war, was an employee. (McCullough, an addict, died before the book was published.)
Simon recalls that “after working a day in a Southwest Baltimore crab house, you go home and have crab dreams at night.” One day, he continues, a bushel of live crabs broke open, and watching them “race sideways around Monroe Street, trying to escape in every direction, is genuinely funny to me for some reason. I haven’t had Sea Pride crabs for a couple years now. Their spice is one of the best in the city. This is making me homesick.”
Rest assured, Simon: When you get home, Crab Corner will be there, smelling of crabs and showing off that crab mentality that, thankfully, means good, cheap crabs for the masses.