When this month's Food Prowl team first assembled to find the best crab cake in Omaha, most of the members were pretty dubious.
After all, we are in landlocked Nebraska. Seafood isn't our thing. Most of us don't know what real crab cakes even look like, let alone how they taste, according to two of the team members who do know.
But I held strong. I knew that a lot of menus around Omaha feature these crustaceous cakes, and I'm betting that even diners who aren't seafood lovers have ordered at least one somewhere in town.
We never found the real-deal crab cake, the kind that's ubiquitous in cities such as Baltimore or Boston. But we found six pretty good versions in this Midwestern city — even the Marylander on the panel had to agree that some of the cakes, including the one that won, were better than she expected.
422 S. 11th St.
We met for lunch in the Old Market, at M's Pub. I'd eaten their crab cakes many times, so I knew what I was getting. While we waited, Linda described her ultimate crab cake: lots of texture, pieces of crab as big as your pinkie finger and the traditional flavor of Old Bay seasoning: a spice blend made in Maryland that includes mustard, paprika, celery salt, bay leaf, black pepper, crushed red pepper flakes, mace, cloves, allspice, nutmeg, cardamom and ginger.
When she visited her home state a week later, she did some reconnaissance work, and snapped a picture of her favorite crab cakes, at the Woodmont Country Club in Rockville, Md.
Linda didn't find her dream crab cake at M's, but she did like their version.
"It's griddle crispy, not deep-fryer crispy," she said.
The cake here had bigger chunks of meat — like it had been smashed together with a fork, Brian said — and was a lot spicier. It comes served two to a plate with a sweet Thai aioli and spicy pickled vegetables.
I voted for the crab cake at M's, the one I liked eating the most. I like that it's spicy and sweet. I like that it comes with flavorful pickled vegetables, and I like that it's cooked to a soft outside crunch with a hot, not-too-smooth center.
"A crab cake is like a cheeseburger," Brian said. "It comes with its own set of expectations."
He ended up voting not just on the flavor of the one he liked best, but also on its execution.
"The one I would feel confident telling anyone to go eat is the one at M's," he said. "It was seasoned right. It was cooked right. I liked the spiciness. And I definitely did not think there were going to be as many good crab cakes in Omaha."
The other contenders:
Jams Bar and Grill
7814 Dodge St.
The team met first at Jams, one of the places that prowler Brian O'Malley, chef-instructor at the Metropolitan Community College Institute for the Culinary Arts, said was a must. Linda Saltzman and Paul Sparwasser, tasters from Maryland and South Carolina, respectively, met us there. We tried all three of the options on the Jams menu: the crab cake appetizer, the crab cake burger and the crab cake salad.
While we waited, Brian talked about the different kinds of crab meat we might encounter: backfin, the most flavorful; claw, less flavorful than backfin; or lump, the least flavorful of the bunch. The three types go in the opposite order in terms of texture, Brian said, from stringy to succulent, so a good mixture of meat is key.
Jams' crab cakes were thick and breaded but not overly large — something we didn't see anywhere else we went. The crab had a mild flavor, a smooth texture and a moist finish. The cakes were the same throughout all the dishes, though the garnishes differed: Brian liked the cheese on his burger, Paul's appetizer had capers over the top and the two salads were thickly dressed and studded with avocado.
The cakes at Jams were mostly crab and not a lot of filler, but the table agreed that the texture of the inside was a bit too blended.
"To me, this is very much a crab croquette," Brian said. "It's very smooth."
Shucks Fish House and Oyster Bar
1218 S. 119th St.
We met at the original location of Shucks, off 120th and Pacific Streets. Brian has his first kitchen job at the restaurant that used to be there, the Blue Fox.
The crab cakes we got at Shucks were the "crabbiest" we saw, and they also were the simplest. The pieces of crab weren't huge, but there were a lot of them, and the cakes tasted distinctly of Old Bay. Whatever was binding the cake together was nearly invisible; Brian guessed egg and cracker meal rather than bread crumbs. The sauce, on the side, also was simple — a white remoulade that tasted mostly of mayo and was studded with pickle bits.
"It's definitely the most no-frills version we've seen," Brian said.
Paul said he wished the cakes had been a bit warmer. Brian thought they could have been cooked a bit longer.
"If you are looking for the most crab flavor, though," Brian said, "This is the place."
Conversation turned to expectations. Nothing we'd had lived up to Linda's high expectations, though she did like Shucks the best thus far. Paul had yet to find one he loved.
"For Omaha," Linda said, "Shucks is good."
Brian said all the cakes we'd had were in line with what he expected.
"I would eat all three," he said.
Linda, being a purist, ended up casting her vote for Shucks at the end of the prowl.
"For me, it had the spice and flavor that I would associate with a crab cake," she said. "And I didn't mind the plainness of it. When I order a crab cake, that is what I want."
Blue Sushi Sake Grill
14450 Eagle Run Drive
We met again at the original location of Blue, near 144th Street and West Maple Road, where the crab cakes had a decidedly Asian spin that included ground corn and lots of chunks of seaweed. The cakes seemed short on crab, to the point that we could barely taste any seafood. The texture was more like a fritter.
Taxi's Grille and Bar
1822 N. 120th St.
On our final day, we met at Taxi's Bar and Grille — Brian had his first crab cake in Omaha at the hands of the chef there, Mac Thompson, who used to make them at the now-closed Neon Goose near downtown.
The cakes at Taxi's may have been the most skillfully cooked of any we tried. The outside was crisp but not crunchy and the inside nicely textured and creamy at once.
But after a couple of bites, one flavor overpowered: onion.
"The intent is good, but the execution is off," Brian said. "If the onion had not been so overpowering, this would have been my favorite."
11036 Elm St.
At our last stop, Taste in Rockbrook Village, Paul finally found his favorite.
Visually, Taste's crab cakes were the most impressive. They had the biggest pieces of crab meat and were studded with bits of green scallion and red pepper. Paul said Taste won points for presentation. He liked that the cakes came with two sauces — a sweet chili and a simple remoulade.
He said the Taste cake also had the best texture, flavor and temperature of any we tried.
The rest of the table wasn't so sure — though the crab pieces were much larger, Linda and Brian didn't think it had enough flavor. I thought it could have used a simple grind of pepper and shake of salt.
"The crab is there," Brian said, "but the seasoning is not."
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