Picture it: Hillcrest Heights, Md., summer of 19-- … well, never mind the year.
A young boy is taken by his parents to something called a crab feast. Beneath a tent outside his local Catholic church, he watches in horror as grownups pound, rip and chomp their way through mounds of crab carcasses. The child longs to flee the horrid sights, sounds and smells.
Flash forward to Baltimore 2018, where that now-grown-up boy, perhaps the only Marylander averse to crabs, dines at Jimmy’s Famous Seafood, the long-standing restaurant engaged in a billboard-and-social-media fray with PETA all about, yes, crabs.
PETA, you will recall, started it with the giant sign depicting a still-living crab and the message: “I’m ME, Not MEAT. See the individual. Go vegan.” Jimmy’s response, printed alongside the photo of a ready-for-eating crustacean: “SteaMEd crabs. Here to stay. Get Famous.”
Me, I’d prefer a fight over crab cakes, which I can deal with more easily, but the brouhaha made me curious about the action at Jimmy’s, a proudly family-run operation that opened in 1974.
I knew I wouldn’t be able to tackle the hapless crabs myself, but I brought along a trusty, crab-crazy ally to do the pummeling and tearing. I also took comfort in knowing that Jimmy’s menu includes lots of beyond-crab items to keep me otherwise engaged.
As it turned out, the steamed crabs we ordered left us imagining a billboard that said: “MEH.”
Although the presentation was promising, with an ear of corn and potatoes sharing the pot with half a dozen medium-to-large crabs, the extracted meat didn’t have much taste or texture. Maybe that explains the undistinguished flavor of the broiled crab cake that accompanied a turf-and-surf entree. Just an off night in the crab department, perhaps.
Other elements of our meal proved far more satisfying.
The turf part of that entree, for example, was what I’d call a retro New York strip steak — thick, juicy, simply grilled, and containing good old-fashioned, crispy fat around the edges, like you used to get at home or at un-fancy eateries. It tasted indulgent, and I loved it. Same for the side of roasted sweet potatoes, with their delightfully peppery skins.
Back to the famous seafood.
From the fresh fish offerings, we chose rockfish and, from the available preparations, one dubbed Mediterranean — lemon vinaigrette and roasted tomato. (Other options include Asian, Caribbean, Parmesan-crusted and crab-stuffed.) The result was a pleasing, low-keyed dish, ably supported by charred broccolini.
Our first course included large, well-fried coconut shrimp that came with a super-tangy dipping sauce of mango and ponzu. The kitchen also turned out a fine version of a golden-oldie, clams casino, that was very cheesy and full of zest from onions, peppers and bacon.
There was also much to be said for an appetizer of intensely flavorful mushroom caps stuffed with crab imperial. That was the most memorable crab-related bite of the night. A close second was a cup of half-Maryland crab, half-cream of crab soup — a perfect choice for an indecisive type like me, and a satisfying combo of hearty flavors.
For dessert, we savored the very tart and sweet toasted coconut Key lime pie, as well as an accomplished Smith Island cake with deep chocolate flavor.
We encountered a few blips with service that night. Our affable server disappeared for long stretches and forgot a few essentials (we had to flag down someone else to get a mallet for the crabs and a container for the shells). No one replaced cutlery after courses, or cleared away crab remnants before dessert.
Overall though, we had a fun time with Jimmy’s something-for-everyone menu, the spacious and attractively designed dining room, and the friendly vibes from staffers and customers alike. We even adjusted, mostly, to the conversation-challenging noise level. And we forgot all about the battle of the billboards.
Jimmy’s Famous Seafood 2.5 stars
6526 Holabird Ave.
Prices: Appetizers $9 to $15; entrees $15 to $38; crabs $69 to $119 per dozen
Ambiance: A friendly, bustling scene
Service: Our server was informative, droll, sometimes forgetful.
Parking: Surface lot
Special diets: Check in advance
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
[Key: Superlative: 5 stars; Excellent: 4 stars; Very good: 3 stars; Good: 2 stars; Promising: 1 star]