They said it couldn't be done. They said you couldn't find a good, reasonably priced seafood restaurant in the Washington area. They said a person couldn't eat well in Prince George's County. They said you couldn't get good crab cakes any closer than Baltimore, except at Crisfield's. They said that fresh fried clams had disappeared with miniskirts, that cherrystones on the half-shell had to cost $3 a half dozen.
Don't tell them about Jerry's Seafood. They wouldn't believe it anyway. I'm not sure I do.
Most of the people who don't deserve to know about it will be turned off anyway by the 1) location (Do you know where Seabrook is?); 2) decoration (classic roadhouse overlaid with fake arched windows of red glass, a fish tank with a stabbed plastic skeleton on the bottom, and vinyl checked tablecloths rendered genteel with fresh flowers). Jerry plans to fix the place up, but I hope he continues to spend his money in the kitchen. It has been said that the kitchen is so small that Jerry once had to steam the crabs in his truck. Jerry has claimed that if he ever had a full house, he wouldn't even have enough plates for the crowd. (Not that I suggest you bring your own; I just want you to understand what kind of place this is.)
Jerry's looks like it has terrible food. That leaves more space for those of us who know better. But anyone who happens in and encounters Jerry himself table-hopping will soon discover the secret. Jerry is obsessive about his seafood, so obsessive that he has been known to appear with live softshell crabs running up his arm to show people how fresh they are. He has spent the summer buying up softshells to freeze them for the winter (admitting that it is a shame to eat them frozen, but unwilling to do without them off-season). When he steams his crabs, he pierces and drains them one by one, which is why they are firm and silken rather than mushy. He usually charges $10 to $15 a dozen for crabs, but one day they were small, so he sold the next table three dozen for $5.
Jerry's has one of those menus that starts with sandwiches, goes on to a confusion of platters and dinners that offer different portions at different prices, lists the soups and appetizers in the middle, and ends with "Ask waitress for desserts." (there is only cheesecake. Always.)
Since this is a seafood house, you might as well skip the sandwiches, keeping in mind for fish-haters that the $1.15 hamburger is small but surprisingly delicious. I was too early in the season to start with oysters, but was perfectly happy with the cherrystone clams on the half-shell. Only $1.75 a half dozen, they are big and briny-fresh. You can get them steamed for $2, but cherry stones are too chewy after steaming, and that process should be reserved for soft-shell clams. Jerry makes two crab soups, one faintly curried cream, the other a fresh, lively tomato vegetable with bits of ground meat. Both are made with lumps of backfin crab, more than one expects for a $1.50 or $2 soup.
Those are starters. Jerry's crab cakes ($4.75 for a platter, $6.25 a dinner) are heroic in their restraint. They are backfin crab and mayonnaise and crab seasoning. That is all. No filler in evidence. Find me a better crab cake if you can. Jerry's crab imperial is similar: backfin in mayonnaise with capers and mustard and a light crumb topping, with butter melting through it.
Most of Jerry's seafood is fried, and therein lies a flaw. He serves an excellent fish filet sauteed with lemon and butter and topped with a healthy portion of crab. It shows how good plain and simple food can be.
But back to the frying, it is a problem. You've got to appreciate grease. Jerry's fried clams are soft and juicy, their batter crisp. But greasy. The fried onion rings and french fried mushrooms are just-made and very good. But greasy. Even Jerry's frozen fish filets (plainly identified as such on the menu) are as good as frozen fish gets. And that coating is appealingly curnchy. But greasy. Fired shrimp are not a best bet here. Concentrate instead on local, fresh seafood.
Expect no glamor, though there are certain niceties such as a paprika-dipped lemon slice and pickle skewered on a frilled toothpick to garnish the coleslaw (which is fine stuff even without a garnish). Rolls come warm and buttered. But it is a homestyle operation, and you should expect to wait while Jerry cooks your fish. Most people wait over a pitcher of beer or a pitcher of Coke. And some people while away the time over a $1.75 chef salad that is a miniature mountain of cold cuts, American cheese and hard-cooked eggs over greens.
Which gets us to the real inside tip for Jerry's Seafood. There is a salad listed at $6.50, and it is modestly identified as "Seafood." It comes in a giant ceramic shell. It is filled with shreds of iceberg lettuce, chopped bacon, spiced shrimp, backfin crab lumps, black olives, Ickles, ripe tomatoes and raw mushrooms. That, believe it or not, is topped with Jerry's whim, which consists of something like two fried fish filets, two fried clams, two clams on the half shell, two fried shrimp and a crab cake.
I still don't quite believe it.