Recipes for delicate cakes of minced and bound seafood are as old as, well, maritime cooking. The crab version we mostly eat today — crab, mayonnaise, breadcrumbs, eggs, seasoning and some onion, gathered up and pan-fried or broiled — is a colonial American recipe that hasn't changed much since it was created.
The perfect crab cake should include large, lump-meat pieces and be loosely packed with a minimum of bread-crumb binder. The best versions are less a disk than a scoop, lightly broiled, allowing the flavor of the crab to come through. It should be served with citrus, and the sauce — mayonnaise, aioli — should be a welcome flavor addition, not a way to mask dryness or sub-par crab.
While we didn't find any spots that were cooking, cracking and picking their own, what we did find was that places using a single variety — Dungeness and Blue (Callinectes sapidus or “beautiful swimmer that is savory”) — made sure to note it. Happily those two are also Monterrey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch approved. The meat is delicate, sweeter than larger crabs, and soft. Snow and King crab — while abundant — are both chewy and tend to be watery and less flavorful. Trying to figure out what type of crab you're being served can be tricky. Most menus don't say because so many species are used — and 75% of crab meat is imported, so looking for locally sourced crab cakes is a major challenge.
Normally with our top ten lists we attempt to find a wide range of prices so everyone can get something great no matter their budget. That just doesn't work here. High quality crab is rare and should be expensive until we stop over-fishing and efforts to rebuild habitats and populations fully succeed. Sorry, there's no hidden $5 gem out there — but there are some really terrific crab cakes. Turn the page for ten of them.
Eating at Traxx is an experience unto itself. The hustle and bustle of people coming and going at Union Station has a retro romance — and it's so much nicer than eating at the airport or bus station. Sit down in the art deco restaurant and order the spicy jumbo lump crab cakes with chipotle remoulade. The southwestern version is served with a corn and tomato relish; the two cakes are studded with red onion and cilantro. The smoky-heat of the remoulade curiously made these the only truly spicy version we tried. 800 North Alameda Street #122., Los Angeles; (213) 625-1999.
Gulfstream caters to office workers at lunch and Westfield mall shoppers looking for a consistent experience. In their dim dining room they're serving a crab cake salad with grapefruit supremes and rough wedges of avocado at lunch. You can also have it as an entree with the salad, a mustard sauce and french fries. As a salad, it's rote, so maybe go for the entree. 10250 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles; (310) 553-3636.
We're mad-crazy for the combo of crab cakes and sake. It's a refreshing pairing that we highly recommend and that can be had, nightly, at K-Zo in Culver City, where you can also get extremely good sushi after you're done shopping at the Trader Joe's next door. Show up early and order a hot sake and the two plump crab cakes served with a red pepper and tomato coulis and an elevated tartar sauce with flecks of chive. The combination of sweet, crunchy, tangy and acid work in balance.9240 Culver Blvd., Culver City; (310) 202-8890.
The crab cakes at Westside Tavern are made with Jonah crab, a mild flavored crustacean from the east coast, remotely related to the rock crabs found further south. What you get is two cakes formed into perfect pucks and fried. Served with a tomato and cucumber salad, they have a festive air about them and are fried perfectly. The crab is tender and, compared to other varieties, does taste somewhat less briny. Unique and worth seeking out, especially after a movie at the Landmark theatre next door.10850 West Pico Blvd., Los Angeles; (310) 470-1539.
The Hotel Bel Air is one of Los Angeles' most beautiful and timeless places, and Sunday brunch in the Wolfgang Puck restaurant is a sight — and taste — to behold. The three course, prix fixe meal includes the option of two, dainty blue crab cakes with a creamy basil aioli and a vibrant tomato relish as a starter. While you're indulging, we suggest trying the 45 Park Lane Bloody Mary, a terrific accompaniment to the stellar crab cakes. 701 Stone Canyon Road, Los Angeles; (310) 472-1211.
Sit outside by the fire pit and order the only pure Dungeness crab cake on this list. Served with butter lettuce and shisho leaves, a lemongrass-infused creme fraiche and a scattering of chives. It just shows what a deft hand can do with a simple ingredient. The cakes are thin and darkly seared. Do as your server suggests and wrap the seafood up in the greens. Thanks to the Dungeness crab, these cakes hold the taste of the ocean. 12565 West Washington Blvd., Culver City; (310) 398-7700.
We love that The Grill on the Alley still does everything the old-fashioned way. The waiters are charming and professional, the food comes swiftly, and the staff pretty much accommodates your every dining whim. When you sit, bread and butter appear. When you eat the bread, someone comes and crumbs your table. When the crab cake arrives, it is tall, plump and moist and sitting like an island in a shallow pool of butter sauce, an entire half of a lemon alongside it. The meat is jumbo lump and the taste is divine.9560 Dayton Way, Beverly Hills; (310) 276-0615.
As with everything else at Santa Monica seafood, there is a kind of casual refinement to the crab cakes. You can order them at the cafe, fried and ready to devour; or buy them uncooked, and take them home to enjoy at your leisure. Served with a simple green salad, the ethically sourced meal is good for the oceans and, probably, even better for you. 1000 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica; (310) 393-5244.
The Lobster is one of those places we suspect locals forget about, which is really too bad. The restaurant is beyond lovely and the views certainly match. The crab cakes, which are larger than most — and priced accordingly — are fried and served with a flawless salad of arugula, shaved fennel and lemon. Beneath that is a basil aioli. All together, the dish is balanced and worth every penny. 1602 Ocean Ave., Santa Monica; (310) 458-9294.
Any crab cake connoisseur will tell you that The Palm is the place to go to get your fix. The singularly large serving consists of two barely held together hemispheres of well seasoned crab meat that falls apart at the touch of a fork. With them comes a simple diced mango and micro-basil salad and a side of chipotle tartar sauce in case you want to liven things up. The glamorous but comfortable setting adds an additional touch of cheer to the classic rendition. Order a glass of wine, sit back and enjoy. 9001 Santa Monica Blvd.; Los Angeles, (310) 550-8811.
Those ten aren't the only ones we tried. Runners up include: Tony P's Dockside Grill, The Boiling Crab, Geoffrey's Malibu and Blair's. Shockingly, The Crab House and The Hungry Cat don't have crab cakes on the menu. (You know where to find us if you do!)
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