Ocean Pride Offers Plentiful Pickings of Excellent Crustaceans
Nowadays most of the crustaceans served in Maryland restaurants come from points south of the Chesapeake as crabs from the temperate climes of Texas/Louisiana/the Carolinas are available year round. Summer always just feels like the right time to eat crabs, though, and the lure of the classic crab house becomes irresistible this time of year. My formative crab-eating years were spent on the outdoor patio of the original Gunnings in Brooklyn, learning how to pick meat from shell under the glow of strings of party lights, and a special place in my heart is reserved for old-school outdoor crab parlors.
An even more special place is reserved in my stomach, however, for good crabs: Atmosphere is great, but the crabs have got to be right or what's the point? And so, even though it doesn't have an outdoor crab corral, these days our family often gets its crabs from Ocean Pride (1534 York Road, Lutherville,  321-7744), either from the no-nonsense yet topnotch takeout at the front of the building or the restaurant in back. The owners of Ocean Pride clearly have pull with crabbers working in other states and even other time zones, as they consistently offer a selection of sizes and prices, even on peak crab-consumption holiday weekends when other places sell out immediately or offer only smalls.
Ocean Pride has a large and serviceable dining room for serving steamed crabs and other seafood items from its extensive (for a crab house, anyway) menu. It's a plain Jane space, all the better for hosing down after customers are done flinging crab guts and shell shards around. I, however, prefer to dine in Ocean Pride's open, light-filled bar room where the service is equally excellent and the Orioles are on TV. Either way, you know you're in Maryland when, even as you slide into your seat, the bus boy is floating down a fresh sheet of brown paper over the table top.
During a mid-July visit, crabs were available in three sizes and price ranges: mediums for $36 per dozen, larges for $54, and extra-larges for $70. We started with a half-dozen extra larges, which were very large, indeed, as well as--as Ocean Pride's outdoor message board is proudly proclaiming these days--truly hot and heavy. Six bucks a crab is painful, but to be fair, two of these babies would make a pretty satisfying $12 dinner. The big, meaty male crabs from Texas were a pleasure to pry into; the shells were relatively flexible, instead of the superthick exoskeletons so often found on Lone Star crabs. Ocean Pride's house-recipe crab seasoning is part of the pleasure: It's a black pepper-based brew, with lots of upfront heat and a long-lingering afterburn of more subtle spices.
My other favorite thing to order at Ocean Pride is oysters on the half shell. OP's raw bar is not huge, but the oysters are always carefully vetted and very fresh. While waiting for our crabs to emerge from the steamer we snacked on a terrific half-dozen Delaware Bay primes ($7.99) as well as cups of crab soup ($4.99 cup/$5.99 bowl). I was underwhelmed by Pride's version of Maryland crab soup, which was chock-full of shredded crabmeat in a salty, almost gooey brown broth. The cream of crab, however, was a whole 'nother story--no lumps, but lots of shredded crab in a thick and silky cream base, lightly touched with sherry and tarragon. Nice.
Though a native-born Baltimorean, I have just never gotten the crab-fluff thing--I think battering and deep-frying an otherwise perfectly good crab cake, usually rendering it oily and just, well, gross, is a crime. So we tried Ocean Pride's shrimp fluff instead, which involved coating (and of course deep frying) jumbo shrimp in fluff batter ($16.99/platter). The result was oddly corn dog-like, with the shrimp encased in a solid cylinder of thick brown dough. It was a love/hate thing: Those of us who loved them really gobbled them down, but I remained grossed out and could easily go the rest of my life sans "fluffed" foodstuffs. However, I must admit that the same batter worked well on the rotund onion rings ($2.99). As for other sides there are the usual fries and slaw but, in classic crab-house manner, Ocean Pride also offers summery sides for its platters like deviled eggs, local corn on the cob, and a tomato-cucumber salad that would have been very nice had it been made with local or even just plain ripe tomatoes instead of grainy orange impostors.
If you're not feeling up to picking your own, Ocean Pride also does a very nice crab cake sandwich for $10.99--large and lumpy, just the way we like 'em, and served on an especially nice egg-glazed French roll. It's well worth spending the extra dollar required for the addition of imperial sauce to your cake--it sounds weird, but really was richly delicious. Or you could go for the platter instead ($15.99 one cake, $24.99 two) and get yourself some sides along with your cake. Speaking of cake, desserts are made by--and I quote our outstanding waitress--"some dude." We tried a chocolate-raspberry tart ($5.95) that was OK but sort of beside the Ocean Pride point.
So: to review. Your choice of crab, some of that sweet corn on the cob, a pitcher of one of the dozen beers on draught: Summertime, and the living is easy in Lutherville.