If Baltimoreans have a Holy Grail, it would be Finding the Perfect Crab House. To me, the perfect crab house doesn't just deliver great hard shells. It has to have other decent seafood as well. There's always someone in the party who thinks picking crabs is too much trouble and wants a crab cake or fried shrimp instead.
The perfect crab house must have atmosphere, and here my standards are pretty loose. (I never realized how attractive knotty pine walls and stuffed marlin could be until I picked hard shells at Schultz's.)
Finally, as always, service is important, but I don't expect much. (Just dump those crabs on the table, Jack.) Somehow I didn't think I would be giving four stars for service to a 20-year-old with glittery fuchsia fingernails who worked at a crab house, but there you go.
Not only did our waitress get the food on the table quickly and correctly, but she also was quiet, pleasant and helpful -- and patient with the guest who dithered endlessly over the pepper Parmesan or the ranch salad dressing. (And hold the croutons, onions and tomatoes.)
Schultz's, in fact, is as decent a crab house as you're going to find in the Baltimore area. One of its virtues is that it's family-owned and -operated. You may get better seafood elsewhere, but you probably won't be able to beat Schultz's old-fashioned charm.
I've gotten a little spoiled in that I like my crabs steamed to order; they don't get soggy that way. But Schultz's aren't terribly waterlogged, and the fiery seasonings are like a shock of Eastern Shore summer on your taste buds. Mediums, the largest size available, were $18 a dozen the night we were there.
I recommend balancing them with a steamed combo of mussels and clams (and oysters when it's an R month). The shellfish are plump and tender and come with plenty of melted butter.
Almost as an afterthought we ordered corn on the cob; it didn't seem possible it would be any good this early in the season. But I could have made a meal on it alone. It was yellow and better than any white corn I've had this summer: young, sweet and cooked to just crisp-tenderness.
We sampled a cup of the crab soup, which had more body and individuality than you often get. What it didn't have was much crab -- even a token piece of shell would have been welcome.
The menu over and beyond crabs is classic Baltimore. You can still get a crab fluff here, and you won't be asked if you want your crab cake fried or broiled. It just comes fried (which gives it a fine golden crust and not too much grease).
We aren't talking a $20 jumbo lump crab cake held together with a wing and a prayer, but a nice old-fashioned one with a bit of filler and good seasonings. Schultz's pairs one of these with chicken salad, a combination that would be more fabulous if the chicken salad weren't drowning in mayonnaise.
My vote for Dish of the Day is the lobster tail stuffed with crab imperial, a steal at $15.95. The lobster meat is de-shelled, so it looks odd at first; but it's juicy and flavorful, and the lump crab meat tossed with its mayonnaise sauce is just about a perfect stuffing.
What you don't want to do is order steak here. Schultz's is a crab house. My guest got the steak and shrimp combo; and the thin New York strip, ordered medium rare, arrived well done. My guess is that the accompanying fried shrimp were breaded and frozen, but it's only a guess, and they were fried grease-free and golden brown.
Schultz's has fine, fat steak fries and homemade coleslaw and macaroni salad (which for some reason this evening was potato salad). Expect lots of mayonnaise in all the salads. The vegetable of the day was green beans, not fresh and with no other virtue.
Usually Schultz's has pie for dessert, but the pies hadn't come in that day. Well, that's typical of crab houses. If there's creme caramel or tiramisu on the menu, you know you've wandered into some newfangled imitation.
SCHULTZ'S CRAB HOUSE
Food: ** 1/2
Where: 1732 Old Eastern Ave., Essex
Hours: Open every day for lunch and dinner
Prices: Appetizers, $1.50-$10.50; main courses, $10.95-$21.95
Rating system: Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *