L.P. Steamers

These jumbo crabs are $5.88 each at L.P. Steamers in Locust Point. (Algerina Perna, Baltimore Sun / August 2, 2011)

Only 15 years old, L.P. Steamers feels like it has been around much longer.

In a relatively short time, it's become an institution where locals bring their out-of-town friends to sample Maryland seafood standards. The restaurant serves as crab house, cultural ambassador and local hangout, which is all the more impressive, considering it's squeezed into a rowhouse in Locust Point.

Dark wooden timbers, dim lighting and a map covered in money from around the world makes the downstairs look like the inside of an old ship. Since the air conditioning was on the fritz when we went, we headed upstairs, which seems barren and drab, compared to the first floor. (They also have a roof deck with a view of the harbor.)

On such a hot day, our hard-working server knew just what we wanted to drink. "Beer?" he asked with a smile, and a couple of minutes later I was pouring a pitcher of Samuel Adams Boston Lager ($12) into little plastic cups. Beer is a must when you're eating crabs (provided you're of age, of course).

The hush puppies ($3), little cornmeal-crusted meteors, were crunchy on the outside and gooey and herby inside. Dipped into the side of drawn butter dipping sauce, they were obscenely delectable. The Shrimp Puffs ($7.95) were just as good. Protected by a crispy beer batter coating, these shrimp were firm and delicious.

There were some choppy waters as well. The steamed shrimp ($13.95) came out overcooked and tough. Luckily, our server was walking by and asked how everything was. Before the explanation was even out of my mouth, he told us he was on it and he'd have a new order out as soon as possible. The second batch wasn't great either, but it was better.

The cream of crab ($4) wasn't necessarily bad — it was just thick. The flavor was really good, but there was too much roux and the soup cooled quickly. By the end, it had congealed enough to hold a spoon upright.

It would be absurd if we went to L.P. Steamers and didn't get crabs. Steamed crabs are served individually, or by the dozen. Twelve regulars are $30, larges are $50 and extra larges are $70. The larges we got were plenty big and full of plump crabmeat which tasted, well, like summer. They weren't plastered in seasoning either, which is always a plus. Get too much of that on your hands and it will blow out the taste of the crab.

A lot of Maryland restaurants have soft shell crabs, but not many do them well. L.P. Steamers serves them the old fashioned way, and also with a few flourishes.

The Stuffed Soft Crab ($14.50) is proof that gilding the lily is a good thing. Two miniature crab cakes are placed under the wings of the crab, and the whole thing is pan-fried in butter. Since it's not served on bread, the trick is to make sure you get a bit of both the cake and the soft shell in each bite. The brittle legs are like the best French fries you've ever had. This soft crab recipe, which can get a little salty at times, could be a new Baltimore standard.

The soft crab ($11.50) is also scrumptious. You can get it as a sandwich, but the bread takes away from one of the best crab preparations out there.

The menu at L.P. Steamers says that the desserts are made in house. That's not true anymore, the owner's grandson told us — for the past year or so, most of their desserts have been store-bought. Still, the cream puffs ($2) are a good way to end the meal. One or two of the little molten-centered cream puffs is all you need to satiate your sweet tooth. They give you five, so you'll have some for your friends — or for later. The Coconut Cake ($4) tasted like a child's vanilla birthday cake topped with a few strands of coconut. It was overly sweet and coco-nutty.

The best crab houses offer old favorites, with a few twists. That's why L.P. Steamers has become a South Baltimore treasure. There, you can get a table full of seafood and a slice of Baltimore..

L.P. Steamers

Back-story: Open for 15 years, L.P. (short for Locust Point) Steamers has been serving up crabs alike while maintaining a Baltimore-ness that few restaurants share.

Parking: Finding a spot to park is sometimes a little challenging, because L.P. Steamers is in a residential neighborhood. You can usually get a space on a side street.

Signature dish: Steamed Crabs, Stuffed Soft Shell Crab

Where: 1100 E. Fort Ave., Baltimore

Contact: 410-576-9294, lpsteamers.com

Open: 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. daily in the summer; 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. daily in the winter

Credit Cards: Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Discover

Appetizers: $2.00-$8.95

Entrees: $4.25-$22.95

A dozen crabs: $30-$70

Food: 3 stars

Service: 3 1/2 star

Atmosphere: 2 1/2 stars

[Key: Outstanding: ✭✭✭✭; good: ✭✭✭; fair or uneven: ✭✭; poor: ✭]