Food Pilgrimage: The Quest for the Baltimore Crab Cake that Got Away

Best Baltimore Crab Cakes

Baltimore locals are quick to expound on their city's highlights: first-rate museums like the Walters Art Museum, the Inner Harbor and the Super Bowl-winning Ravens. Still, some residents would argue that Charm City's greatest point of pride is a more savory entity: crab cakes. This waterfront city on the Chesapeake Bay loves a good crab dish. Yet, while living in Baltimore for four years while studying at Loyola University in the 1990s, I never ate a crab cake.

If you're asking how it's possible to live in a city where crab dishes are everywhere and never manage to munch on a crab cake, the answer is simple: I was broke. My life as a student involved eating a lot of boxed macaroni and cheese and pilfering rolls of toilet paper from public bathrooms to save on living costs.

In short, it did not involve crab cakes.

This year marks 15 years since I graduated from Loyola and left Baltimore. It seemed appropriate to embark on a pilgrimage from my current home in New York City to Baltimore, where -- no longer a broke college kid -- I would sink my teeth into a succulent crab cake.

Here's what happened.

Where does one go to eat Baltimore's best? The answer, hands down, is Koco's Pub, according to writer and local resident Jennifer Plum-Auvil. I determined her instincts were on point after researching the pub and discovering glowing reviews in the Baltimore City Paper, Baltimore Sun and even Yelp.

Owned by Joanna and John Kocovinos since 1985, Koco's is said to dish out Baltimore's tastiest -- and some of its largest -- crab cakes. The only people making Koco's crab cakes and privy to the recipe are Joanna and her daughter Marcella Knight. The mother-daughter duo serves up an average of 200 crab cakes daily and up to 300 on weekends, according to Knight.

The Kocovinos bought the restaurant after Joanna had spent years in the restaurant business, including a stint making crab cakes at the Pump Room, a now-defunct crab house. Knight remembers Koco's as more of a bar scene and less of a restaurant when it opened. "We cooked crab cakes in a pizza oven and used a chalkboard with the menu of the day," she says. "We made whatever my mom bought in the grocery store."

The tide turned 12 years ago, when the family remodeled Koco's and offered a regular, full menu. People began to notice Koco's and its crab cakes.

"We went from serving 20 crab cakes a week to 200 a day," says Knight. "We just grew and grew and grew." Indeed, today, Koco's kitchen breezes through 500 pounds of crab meat weekly to meet customers' demand.

Tucked into Baltimore's tiny Lauraville neighborhood, Koco's seems a world away from the throngs of tourists that visit the city's Inner Harbor. Though it's only about 15 minutes from the city's center, we drove through some of Baltimore's rougher neighborhoods, all too reminiscent of The Wire before finding ourselves on Harford Road, complete with a coffee roaster, restaurants and a smattering of shops. After riding through these shifting demographics and arriving at Koco's, I felt a smidge of self-satisfaction for stumbling upon a city secret - until I entered the pub. Inside, diners clamored for tables, and stragglers vied for seats at the bar. I sat down, soaked up the scene and took a gander at the menu. My crab cake hour was nigh.

Koco's is housed in the brightest building on its block, painted sunshine yellow, with an equally cheerful interior, complete with a children's play area as well as Baltimore sports memorabilia, kitschy bar signs ("When life hands you lemons...grab the tequila and salt!") and photos of regular customers' babies decorating peach and yellow walls. It may be a pub, but this is no dive bar.

When the waiter arrived, I ordered the jumbo lump crab cake platter and discovered Koco's offers 6-ounce and 11-ounce versions of its cakes. When presented with the options, I made the obvious choice: Go big or go home, right?

As mentioned, Koco's draws a crowd; the restaurant warns that there could be a hefty wait for your meal. From the time I ordered until my plate's arrival, a very long 52 minutes passed.

Was the crab cake worth the wait? Absolutely. Koco's, it would appear, has made an opulent art out of this dish.

The 11-ounce crab cake is a genuine monster, in the absolute finest sense of the word. It rests on a bed of lettuce, the exterior darkened and slightly crispy from the broiler, the interior chock full of gigantic clumps of white, tender crab meat. Kocovinos uses the barest amount of tiny, hand-cut bread cubes to hold the meat together, and a secret recipe of ingredients lends the crab cake a slightly creamy consistency with a perfectly pitched flavor of classic Old Bay seasoning and spices. The platter includes no condiments; it would be criminal to mask the flavors with tartar or cocktail sauce.

The meal included French fries, coleslaw and a sliced tomato garnish, but truly, I commend the soul who houses an 11 ounce crab cake, plus the copious sides. I managed to finish every last morsel of crab cake, which left me so sated that I could merely nibble the fries and slaw.

Feeling blissed out and very full, I had to admit my pilgrimage exceeded any possible crab cake expectations. In fact, I'm still awed that one crab cake could be so delectable and so enormous and even contain chunks of crab meat as big as a quarter. After indulging in Koco's deliciousness, I only regret that I can't sink my teeth into their crab cakes regularly. It may be cold comfort, but, yes, my last trip to the supermarket did involve purchasing (not pilfering!) Old Bay seasoning. Nope, it's not the same. But, hey, dare to dream.

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