Breaking Tradition – Crab Tacos “Chesapeake Bay Style”

Over the last year I have spent a lot of time on the East Coast. And while I have enjoyed seeing this part of the country, it’s not a place I have ever felt comfortable spending a lot of time visiting. There is an attitude of superiority when it comes to tradition that those of us on the West Coast have never fully understood. Don’t get me wrong, the other coast has a lot to be proud of. The founding of our country. Crab. Wall Street. Crab. The birth of flight. Crab. All great achievements and wonderful traditions. And to an extent innovation. That is until it comes to food…

I was talking with a waiter at a notable seafood restaurant while on a business trip to Virginia a few months ago and the conversation turned to crab cakes. “People on the West Coast don’t know really know how to cook and serve shell fish,” the waiter said against a back drop of overly dramatic dark wood paneling and fish nets covering the walls. I was told the ideal preparation is lots of crab with some seasoning and breading. Served simply with colelaw and french fries on the side. “Do you have any other innovative ways of serving the crab?” I inquired. “We've prepared it for generations this way” he exclaimed looking down his nose at me. Captain Tradition insisted that was all that was needed regardless of my west coast curiosity about how else the cakes might be served. It just didn't seem right to me. It was, well, puritanical.

"Let the crab’s sweetness speak for itself" he said. I could buy that. After all, I love simplicity in cooking, especially when showing off good ingredients. That is until he brought out the tartar and cocktail sauce, and extra lemon. "What’s that about?" I thought to myself. In this instance Captain Tradition explained that these “complementary” accouterments helped to bring out the delicious flavor of the crab.

I was puzzled to say the least. Mayonnaise, pickles and ketchup complement seafood? Drenched in acidic lemon juice? I was not getting this tradition. I ate the crab cakes and they were fine. Nothing that blew me away however, other than a feeling of despair that there was so much potential locked up in that little cake with no way to really show himself off other than lying on a plate. Lonely. Next to runny and lifeless coleslaw.

On my return to the West Coast I was still a bit miffed at the holier than thou attitude towards crab preparation and I needed an attitude adjustment. So I decided to go North to get some perspective. I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area. Drastic, I know, especially after a run in with a snooty waiter.

The commitment to food in Northern California is unparalleled - a happy side effect I am the beneficiary of. A move to this beautiful part of the country motivated by family reasons that is paying dividends. I love the pro-active and thoughtful use of good ingredients in this part of the country. And with that, a level of innovation and re-invention of tradition in relation to food seldom seen anywhere else in the United States…especially the East Coast.

Don’t get me wrong Boston. Maryland. Maine. You guys know seafood. But can’t you loosen up and dress it out a bit? Unbutton that oxford collar shirt perhaps? Trade in those loafers for flip flops? I mean seriously, things can be improved on and it’s well beyond the time for a new look here. That poor crab cake/coleslaw/french fry tradition is looking like shorts hiked up well past the mid section with dark socks and sandals to match. Out of place but no one is really saying anything as you float by on the cruise ship of entrees. And I know you know what I am talking about.

Our staid and preppy crab cake could use a hot night out and a new attitude. You know what I mean. Your out with your friends until the wee hours. 7 or 8 tequila shots are downed and everyone is feeling good and a little to talkative. And then the usually dependable voice of reason in the group, old crab cake picks up his head up off the paper place mat on the table and says “I really love you man. I’ll get up on that stage and shake my money maker for you.” And when this crab cake tradition collides with a hot night of tequila that can mean only one thing – tacos.

You heard me. Just go with me for a minute and think about this. A typical crab cake is presented by itself. Often, old tag-along coleslaw is right there hanging out, sort of behind the velvet rope on the plate. Bland. Boring. Flavorless. Definitely not an "A-Lister". It adds nothing to the overall experience on its own. Some luke warm fries are thrown down as an afterthought. And that is just wrong. It’s served this way because it is a tradition. Sure the crab is sweet and everything. But these components don’t really work all that well together and that is what is missing. Throw on a squeeze of lemon and you are tasting a mouthful of acidic citrus. It’s all an afterthought and I think it's time for an intervention.

Since crab goes amazingly well with corn, the tortilla (soft corn tortillas East Coast people, no such thing as a hard taco shell in Mexico – note the West Coast attitude) the perfect platform to help the crab cake break out of its funk. Crab cakes make for excellent fillings in a taco. Crisp and crunchy on the outside. Soft, sweet and hot on the inside. Rolled up in a warm corn tortilla. Sort of like crab cake cleavage. Accents of lime scented cabbage slaw. A bit of cilantro. Perhaps a drizzle of lime jalapeno crema.

We’re talking about a hot night out in Tijuana. You can just tell that I am miles from Chesapeake Bay right now. Trust me, I have lived about 15 miles from the Mexican border for most of my life and I know what I am talking about. It’s time Mr. Crab Cake relaxed and ordered up a few shaken margaritas.

Don’t get all superior or puritanical on me East Coast. Give this a try and tell me just how much fun breaking tradition can really be.

Recipe for Crab Cake Tacos with Lime Cilantro Slaw & Tequila Jalapeno Cream
Makes 4 tacos

Crab Cakes
2 T finely chopped green onion
2 T finely chopped red bell pepper
1 T chopped cilantro
4 T mayonnaise
2 T olive oil
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp pepper
3 T panko bread crumbs
1/2 lb Dungeness lump crab meat

To cook the crab cakes

1/3 cup flour
1 egg
2 T milk
8 T panko bread crumbs
1/2 cup vegetable oil

Cilantro Cabbage Slaw
1/2 cup red cabbage, thinly sliced
1/2 cup red bell pepper, thinly sliced
1/4 cup cilantro, chopped
1/4 cup fresh lime juice
1 T olive oil
salt and pepper to taste

Jalapeño Lime Crema

1 jalapeño pepper
1/4 cup sour cream or Mexican crema
Juice of 1/2 lime
1 T lime zest
salt and pepper to taste

To Serve
4 corn tortillas, soft
Lime wedges for serving

Prepare the Crab Cakes
Mix all ingredients thoroughly, except the crab, in a medium bowl. Form crab mixture into 2 inch in diameter cakes that are 1 inch high. Place on a sheet pan or plate that is covered in wax paper and then cover crab cakes with plastic wrap. Chill in the refrigerator for 1 to 2 hours.

Make the Red Bell Pepper and Cabbage Cilantro Slaw
Add all ingredients to a bowl and mix lightly. Season with salt and pepper. Let stand at room temperature for up to one hour.

Make the Jalapeño Lime Crema
Roast the jalapeño directly over a gas flame until charred all over. Transfer the jalapeño to a small bowl, cover with plastic wrap and let cool. Peel, seed and coarsely chop the jalapeño. In a food processor, puree the sour cream and lime juice with the jalapeño until smooth. Mix in the lime zest. Season with salt and pepper. Transfer the crema to a small bowl and refrigerate.

Cook and Assemble the Crab Cake Tacos
Heat the oven to 200 degrees and place tortillas wrapped in foil on the middle rack. Place flour in one bowl, egg and milk beaten together in a second bowl and panko bread crumbs in a third bowl. Dip crab cakes in flour and dust of excess lightly. Dip crab cakes in egg wash covering them entirely while handling them gently. Brush off any excess egg wash and then cover the entire crab cake with panko bread crumbs.

Heat a non stick pan over medium high heat and add oil. Fry crab cakes for 8 minutes turning them over after 4 minutes. They should be golden and crisp. Place on paper towels and drain.

Place a corn tortilla on a plate. Cut one crab cake in half and place cut side in the middle of the tortilla so that when you fold it the flat edge of the cut cake will be at the bottom of the folded tortilla. Place 1/4 cup of the slaw on top. Drizzle with the jalapeño lime crema. Serve with lime wedges on the side.


Elra said...

Hi Marc,
Nice posting.
Crab cake is one of my favorite sea food, I always make my own crab cake, with lots lots of spices and chiles. So, I don't have any idea what the traditional crab cake taste like. And I must try yours, it sound so delice!

Elra said...

It's me again,
I just want to welcome you to the Bay Area and also to congratulate you on your new home.

Clumbsy Cookie said...

I love crab meat, but here crab cakes are not really popular. We usually enjoy the whole crabs. But I'm sure I wouls love your crab cakes tacos, they look amazing!

noble pig said...

Oh how lovely, the crab looks and sounds divine.

[eatingclub] vancouver || js said...

Crab tacos -- yummy! I don't mind breaking with tradition, especially when it yields such beauty.

Tartelette said...

Welcome back Marc! There is East and there is East...come down South and we will share our crab traps with you and boil them right then and there :)
Ther crab tacos sound wonderful!

Alexa said...

Hey Marc, So nice to see another wonderful post. I am glad that the move went well and that you are now living in food heaven... Northern California is so beautiful and delicious for people who live and breathe food. These tacos sound so tasty and the pictures are great.

Lori Lynn said...

Captian Tradition. haha
YAY for Crab Tacos! I make fried oyster tacos too.

My Sweet & Saucy said...

I love this idea! What a fun party food...sounds like this would make a killer cooking class or dinner party menu!

Kevin said...

Crab cake tacos sound really good!

Susan from Food Blogga said...

Having grown up on the East Coast, I know what you mean. I agree that the West Coast generally has more innovative methods of preparation and presentation while the East Coast relies more heavily on tradition. But, honestly, it sounds like you just got stuck with a snob of a waiter. The East Coast has many fabulous seafood restaurants, but like the West Coast, you need to know where they're located. As for the crab tacos, bring 'em on!

Krysta said...

maybe it's because i'm a california girl through and though... i'd much rather have your crab tacos than crab cakes. can't wait to make these.

Erin said...

I am pleased to see I am not the only one perplexed by the holier than thou attitude and endless list of condiments mixed into them. Yours however look delicious!

Sharon said...

Living in California, I've had a lot of seafood tacos, but never crab cake tacos. These sound absolutely amazing and I'm dying for some crab cake cleavage today :)

Nicole said...

Ohhh. I love the idea of the jalapeno lime cream!!!!! MMMMM.....

Angela said...

LOL. That is so true about the east coast needing to lighten up in their treatment of the good ol' crab cake. This looks like a perfect West Coast response!

Skipper Life said...

You left out 1 key ingredient that truly ties in the east coast...
Old Bay!
I just made crab tacos for dinner tonight. something many of us true southern boys already do. The latino influence has not only influence west coast cuisine.

I actually had "fried oyster" tacos a couple weeks ago at a local restaurant in FL. I was skeptical but they were amazing. Lightly breaded and flash fried oysters still raw in the middle.... mmmmmmmmmm!

There is a larger mixing of southern and mexican cuisines going on. Keep it coming!