In a neighborhood still searching for a dining identity, some in historic Anacostia have raised an eyebrow at a newcomer that goes by the name of Capitol Hill Crab Cakes.
“The name confuses me,” muttered a Yelp reviewer. “Where is the Anacostia pride?”
It’s a legit question, and Horatio Davis has a compelling answer: The chef and owner behind this crab-heavy carryout grew up on Capitol Hill, but not the part with million-dollar rowhouses, tasting-menu restaurants and markets selling vine-ripened tomatoes for $3 a pound. Davis recalls the floor shaking at his grandparents’ house near RFK Stadium whenever the Redskins found the end zone. He remembers how he lost his mom to the drug culture around Potomac Gardens, the Capitol Hill housing project that was swallowed up in the crack epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s.
“It wasn’t the greatest living situation, but those are the people I grew up with,” Davis explains.
Davis wanted to bring a piece of his childhood to Anacostia, a neighborhood that has experienced its own share of hardship. Located in the same community that his father once called home, Capitol Hill Crab Cakes is a small sign of progress, but one tinged with the memories of a less-hopeful time. To my mind, the name has depth, feeling and poetry, if also a poor sense of direction.
But as any English major will tell you, you can’t survive on poetry. Davis opened Capitol Hill Crab Cakes late last year after fine-tuning his crab-cake concept as a pop-up at festivals and markets. He conducted his shellfish R&D while also serving as executive chef for the Alibi Club, the ultra-secret, ultra-exclusive downtown retreat where the world’s most powerful men feel the need to hide from their wives.
As a result of Davis’s research and refinement, Capitol Hill Crab Cakes feels like a fully formed concept from the outset. A journeyman chef who trained at L’Academie de Cuisine in Gaithersburg, Davis uses crab in a wide variety of dishes, a shrewd approach that avoids wasting the pricey and perishable meat. Aside from the 5- to 6-ounce cakes, the menu features a crab grilled cheese, a spicy crab-and-shrimp roll, even a Caprese crab cake sandwich.
The chef’s wittiest statement, though, is a plate dubbed the Anacostia surf and turf, which pairs a jumbo-lump crab cake with a fried chicken breast. (It used to be an airline cut, but Davis switched for budgetary reasons.) The dish nods to the deep-fried tradition of Anacostia carryouts while simultaneously elevating the neighborhood’s dining options with a riff on a steakhouse classic. It’s a shame the kitchen fumbled the preparation of my plate: The crab cake glistened with grease, and the chicken required a generous application of hot sauce to compensate for its dehydrated meat.
It’s a shame, I say, because the kitchen is usually reliable. When I had ordered a jumbo-lump crab cake on an earlier visit, the fat puck of shellfish flesh had picked up just enough oil and color to activate my saliva glands. I can’t vouch for the percentage of jumbo lump in the cake — though I spotted plenty of plump, juicy pieces — but I can testify to its flavor: clean and fresh with a dash of biting mustard and a hint of grassy parsley. Davis confided that he adds a rather unorthodox ingredient to his crab cake (I swore to take the secret to the grave), but I couldn’t actually detect it after two attempts. Maybe you can?
The first time I visited the carryout, when I opted to dine at one of the few tables, some customers in line were carrying on about the crab fries. I could relate. I had already secured a container of the coated fries, smothered with a spicy house remoulade and sprinkled with ivory crab meat. The appetizer first hypnotized my eyes, then put the moves on my palate. I surrendered like the prey animal.
Some of the other crab preparations just can’t compete with those saucy, smothered fries. My spicy crab-and-shrimp sandwich suffered from a split roll that was griddled without a lick of butter, adding a bitter edge to the bite. The Caprese dresses up a traditional crab cake sandwich with tomato, mozzarella and basil mayonnaise, and it would have impressed me had the thing not essentially disintegrated, the crab meat crumbling through my fingers like wet sand.
Have a shellfish aversion? You can still dine here. Chicken assumes a number of different forms, mostly the fried variety. Oversauced bar wings will never taste the same after you bite into Davis’s version, each salty, crispy and bony segment a validation of the kitchen’s fry skills. My favorite fried bird part, however, was a rugged length of boneless thigh meat tucked into a potato bun and drizzled with an innocuous-looking sauce that proved so hot it could have branded cattle. The chef has dubbed this mouthwatering bite the Marion Barry fried chicken sandwich, which seems perfect. It’s just as irrepressible as the late politician.
In ways both subtle and obvious, Capitol Hill Crab Cakes has had to meet Anacostia where it is. You’ll conduct business through the small portal of a bullet-proof partition, often forced to repeat yourself to the person on the other side of the glass. Everything comes packaged for takeout, even if you’d prefer to eat in the white-washed dining room rather than have the steam trapped in your container degrade dinner. And perhaps most important, the blue crabs are not local. Davis says he’ll buy shellfish from anywhere, whether the Gulf of Mexico or Indonesia, if the price is right.
“I can’t afford to stay in business in Anacostia selling Maryland blue crab,” Davis says.
I guess locals could view this as another slap — a place called Capitol Hill that can’t afford to serve Chesapeake blue crabs in Anacostia — but I think there’s another way to interpret Davis’s efforts. Capitol Hill Crab Cakes has been built for the long haul, a tasty carryout that plans to grow right along with the community.
1243 Good Hope Rd. SE. 202-678-5000. capitolhillcrabcakes.net.
Hours: Monday-Saturday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Sunday noon to 6 p.m. The restaurant is closed the first Sunday of every month.
Nearest Metro: Anacostia, with a 0.7-mile walk to the restaurant.
Prices: Appetizers $3.99-$13.99; entrees and platters $5.59 to $39.99.