Summer is road-trip season, so we're taking a culinary tour of America. But because Portland is a city of immigrants from other states, we don't have to leave town to do it. We're traveling to 50 Portland restaurants to try one distinctive food from each state. Our 50 Plates tour continues with lump blue crab cakes from Maryland, which joined the union on April 28, 1788.
The state: Maryland claims to be the birthplace of religious freedom, because the Catholics. (The result was Baltimore. Take that as you will.) But Maryland's nickname of "Free State" came only in 1919, when the heavy drinkers of Little America lodged a protest against the passage of prohibition. Also, Maryland is where the The Wire came from, which makes it a state full of American heroes.
The food: Crab cakes are a sort of secondary religion in Maryland, and there is no crab but the plentiful Chesapeake Blue. You foolishly ask for "boardwalk style", you get the breaded, fried, eggy balls you see often enough in West Coast eateries, mashed up cheap onto a hamburger bun and filled with Old Bay seasoning, which is to Maryland what shaker MSG is to the Midwest. The true Maryland crab cake consists mostly of... crab, along with a bit of cracker crust, a little bit of spice, some mayo. But: crab, man. Crab.
Other dishes considered and rejected: Crab dip, red crab soup, crab imperial, crab fluff, soft-shell crabs, crabs with Old Bay. Lake trout. Pit beef. Peach cake. Smearcase.
Get it from: As lovely as a good old fashioned lump blue crab cake is, they are very hard to find out here. It's considered a piece of heresy to serve one in Oregon, where we are quite proud of the much more delicate flavors of our coast's native Dungeness. But Ruth's Chris Steakhouse has no such pieties. And though the chain was founded in New Orleans, it serves up a mostly Maryland-style cake, with a hint of blackening seasoning and lemon butter and only a nod toward a cracker crust. They could have called them crab hills and been mostly accurate. The piping-hot plate isn't cheap—two cakes on an appetizer menu will cost you $21, three as an entree will chump you for $31—but it is lovely and hearty, with the blue crab's characteristic hard-bitten complexity and sweetness. And if you order your cakes on the bar side of the restaurant, you get to eat them with well-heeled 67-year-olds who eat and drink only alone, and who know the names of the bartender's children.