THERE IS a song that goes "crabs walk sideways, and lobsters walk straight but you'll never get'em for your mate . . . " Chesapeake Bay crab authority William Warner, author of "Beautiful Swimmers," says that crabs walk sideways because of "articulation and segmentation of the walking limbs." Some raise their eye stalk and have the advantage of compound lenses they might have a small blind spot straight ahead.
Only crabs know the real reason. They walk sideways to avoid being made into crab cakes.
Crabs have gone through a clever evolution to keep you out of their shells. It's a lot of work gouging out the meat and for many the reward isn't worth the effort. But when extracted crab meat comes in the form of a patty someone else has already done the work for you. Eating one is just a piece of cake.
There are regional crab cake variations, although some chauvinist cooks may offer to duel with crab claws, so convinced are they that their recipe is the only authentic one. The "Maryland" crab cake recipe is the most familiar here: Lump or backfin meat, gently folded into a bread crumb filler seasoned with varying amounts of mustard, Worcestershire sauce, green or red peppers, parsley and, occasionally, onion. Cayenne, nutmeg, sherry and capers also appear in some versions.
There are "Chesapeake" crab cakes that deviate only in style -- the crab meat is shredded into fine filaments rather than left whole, whipped into a cream-based sauce and deep-fried. "Smithfield" crab cakes are essentially the same as Chesapeake-style, but sauteed in bacon fat. There are also Louisiana crab cakes, which are the New Orleans version of Maryland crab cakes seasoned with garlic and hot pepper sauce.
Crabmeat itself is packed in several grades: lump or backfin meat is solid chunks of white meat picked from the crab's body. Claw meat is taken from the pincers and may have a yellow tint. Flake meat is anything left over that can be scraped out. According to a District of Columbia restaurant inspection spokesman, if a menu advertises "lump crab meat" it had better be. (The spokesman also said that some restaurants have been reprimanded for using catfish rather than crab.)
The Food Section's approach to testing crab cakes was to consider the sum more important than its parts. Although some cakes may have had large chunks of crab, if the seasoning was overpowering, or the filler masked the crab, it lost points. Price was also a factor. We have separated the listing into three categories: Takes the Cake, Okay Cakes and Crabby Cakes.
Market Lunch, Eastern Market, 225 7th St., SE,: Deliciously fresh chunks of crabmeat surrounded by a parsley and mayonnaise-based sauce, perfectly seasoned. Price: $2.50 for the sandwich.
The Imperial Crab & Seafood House, 9429 Georgie Ave., Silver Spring: The backfin crab cakes are prepared lightly fried or broiled. The Louisiana crabmeat is in large moist chunks and seasoned with sauteed green peppers, pimientos, mayonnaise and breadcrumbs. Price: $9.95 for the dinner platter and $4.95 for the sandwich.
Duke Zeiberts, 1722 L St., NW: Sweet, shredded, fresh backfin crabmeat in 2 large cakes, nicely sauteed with a seasoning of pimiento and green pepper. Price: $7.95.
The Village Pub, 9364 Lanham-Severn Rd., Seabrook: Jerry's Seafood has put together a golden brown, perfectly seasoned, buttery, fresh crab cake with no filler that easily qualifies as the best in the Maryland suburbs. There are whole chunks of crabmeat in the cake rather than shredded fibers. As of this writing there is no sign in front of the pub except a paper banner saying "seafood." The price is also among the best: $2.75 for a crabcake sandwich and $4.25 for a platter.
Sholl's New Cafeteria, 1433 K St., NW: Like most of Sholl's food, it is more than a bargain ($1.85). The cake is made with firm, white crabmeat and bound in a creamy flour-based sauce, gently fried. After a few trips we found that the quality was not always consistent, but favorable.
Crisfield Seafood Restaurant, 8012 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring: Lightly shredded crabmeat is mixed with a saute of green pepper and pimiento. The cake is deep fried to a light golden brown, but not greasy. The crabmeat is not in pieces, but shredded. However, a fresh crab taste prevails and the cake is carefully spiced. Price: $3 for the sandwich and $7.50 for the platter.
Roma Oyster Bar, 3419 Connecticut Ave., NW: This nicely browned cake had a homeogonized souffle texture, lightly seasoned with pepper and capers -- a nice touch but the capers were cold. The cake was light, not greasy, and buttery. Price: $6.
Jonah's Oyster, Hyatt Regency, 400 New Jersey Ave., NW: Huge chunks of firm fresh crab (the largest pieces found) were unfortunately spiked with a gummy binder. Satisfactory, but for the luncheon price of $8 not highly recommended.
Kushner's, 8523 Piney Branch Rd., Silver Spring: The cakes were bland and had a smoky, deep-fried taste. As Gertrude Stein said about Los Angeles, there's no there, there.
Aux Fruits de Mer, 1335 Wisconsin Ave., NW: Two crab-filled cakes bound with a cream sauce seasoned with sherry and spices which overwhelmed the delicate taste of the crab. The cakes were well fried and the accompanying cole slaw delicious. Price: $4.95 for the platter.
Harvey's, 1001 18th St., NW: The golf ball-shaped cakes were evenly fried, a little flakey, with dry chunks of crab. Price: $7.50 for lunch and $11.95 for dinner.
Chadwick's, 3205 K Street, NW and 203 S. Strand, Alexandria: This cake had a thick, crispy crust like corn flakes. There was a good fresh crab taste with an adequate amount of seasoning. Price: $4.25 for the sandwich and $7.95 for the platter.
Chesapeake Crab House, 8214 Piney Branch Rd., Silver Spring: Unfortunately, the spicy crab cake sandwich is wedged between catsup and coleslaw that smothers its taste. The cake is plump and has distinguishable lumps of crabmeat, but the filler and spices are a bit overpowering, too. The take-out counter is efficient and the help friendly. Price: $2.25 for the sandwich.
Tags Restaurant, 44 Washington Blvd., Laurel: A discernible oily taste interfered with our appreciation of the whole crab flakes mixed with seafood seasoning. The cake was plump but a little dry with a mild taste of seafood. Price: $3.50 for the dinner and $2.95 for the sandwich.
The Fish Market, 105 King St., Alexandria: Fresh crab surrounded by a creamy, peppery filler, nicely fried, but over-seasoned. Price: Lunch $4.25 and dinner $5.50.
Bish Thompson's, 7935 Wisconsin Ave., Bethesda: The dinner platter had 4 small rounded cakes that were nicely cooked to a golden brown. The crab was stringy without much breading, but over-salted. Price: $4.95 for lunch and $7.95 for dinner.
Pier 7, Maine and 7th Aves., SW: These backfin crab cakes were made with machine-like perfection, nicely fried but a bit greasy and a heavy taste of pimiento and nutmeg. Slightly stodgy, but not offensive. Price: $7.50 for the dinner platter.
The Wharf, 119 King St., Alexandria: Shredded like tuna salad with too much mayonnaise, these cakes lacked an assertive crab flavor, but were not offensive. Price: $3.25 for the sandwich available at lunch.
McGuire's, 1330 Pennsylvania Ave., SE: This is not a seafood restaurant but an Irish pub. The cake had been fried too quickly so it was cold in the middle and a bit mushy. Okay fare for a bar. Price: $3.25 for the sandwich.
Market Inn, 200 E St., SW: An everyman's crab cake of shredded meat mixed with a bland filler, seasoned with pepper and nicely fried. Price: $6.75 for luncheon platter and $7.95 for dinner platter.
Fred & Harry's, 10110 Colesville Rd., Silver Spring: The sign in front may say "Recommended By Fred," but not by us. The crab cake was over-fried leaving a smoky, oily flavor. It had a mushy consistency and no crab taste. Price: $2.75 for the sandwich and $6.50 for the platter.
Dancing Crab, 4611 Wisconsin Ave., NW: This thick-crusted crab cake did not taste fresh; it was cold in the middle and over-seasoned. Price: crab cake sandwich $3.50, platter $6.45.
Captain Bob's Raw Bar & Restaurant, 183 Rollings Ave., Rockville: Bob should weigh anchor on the crab cake boat. The crab was tough, bound with a heavy breadcrumb filler and overly seasoned with pepper. Price: Crab cake boat $2.50, crab cake sandwich $2.60 and crab cake platter $6.95.
Bay and Surf, US 1, Laurel: An overabundance of salt and pepper hid the taste of large crab flakes. It was, however, nicely fried. Price $3.95 for sandwich and $8.95 for the platter.
Wheaton Crab House, 11210 Grandview Ave., Wheaton: The crab cake was fried, greasy and over-salted with a taste of shredded paper. Price: $1.75 for the overcooked crab cake.
Captain White's, 8123 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring: Nicely fried and golden, but too much mustard was used in the filler giving it an "off" taste. Crab cake sandwich (lunch) $2.50, dinner $3.50; dinner platter $7.75.
Flagship, 900 Water St., SW: Heavy, floury and too much cartilage in the crabmeat, which is bound with something akin to instant stuffing. Price: Childrens platter $3.10, crab cake imperial (additional crabmeat) $8.25, crab cake platter $5.90 and crab cake sandwich $3.
Hogate's, 9th St. and Maine Ave., SW: The platter comes with 4 small, very shredded and very homogeonized cakes bound with a pasty green pepper and pimiento filling. Price: $3.50 for the sandwich and $8.95 for the platter.
Seaport Inn, 6 King St., Alexandria: Dry, salty and flattened (about 1/4 inch) like a potato pancake -- the life had been pressed out of it. Price: $3.
Old Ebbitt Grill, 1427 F St., NW: Too much crab-helper does not help the cake -- bland, bready and heavy. Price: $4.95 for lunch crab cake sandwich and $7.95 for dinner.
Gangplank Restaurant, 600 Water Street, SW: The 2 cakes looked and tasted like racquet balls that were frozen in the middle with an overpowering taste of Worchestershire sauce. Price: $8 for the dinner platter.
Martin's Tavern, 1264 Wisconsin Ave., NW: The severely shredded crabmeat was gathered with a slight filler, over-fried and too generously salted and peppered. Price: $6.95 for the platter.
O'Donnell's Sea Grill, 1221 E. St., NW and 8301 Wisconsin Ave., Bethesda: Seven pieces of cartilage were found in one greasy crab cake with a heavy crust. The meat was in shreds, not in chunks. Price: $3.95 for the sandwich and $7.25 for the dinner platter.