Seems Like Old Times
Kibby's Shrimp Salad is the Same as it Ever Was--Fabulous
i'm always surprised when i talk to local folks who have never heard of Kibby's Restaurant and Lounge . I was born on the south side of Baltimore, where everyone just knows that this is the place to go for great shrimp salad. I'm still very fond of Kibby's, a venerable Mobtown institution established in 1934 and in its current location since 1959.
Kibby's décor runs to dark wood paneling, red tufted pleather booths, and stained glass, and the menu offers the food equivalent of grandparents'-swanky-night-out ambience: three kinds of "imperial" (crab, of course, but also flounder and chicken), stuffed mushroom caps, sour beef and dumplings--you get the picture. For the most part, dinner prices are reasonable and lunch prices a rock-solid bargain--on my recent visit the dining room was packed with senior citizens, folks who know a bargain when they see one.
This, of course, is precisely the kind of place that you'd want to order something antediluvian like French onion soup ($4.50), and so I did despite the 100-plus-degree heat outside. The first time I ever tried French onion soup was in the dining room at the Hochschild, Kohn & Co. department store on Howard Street. (The waitress warned me away from it, saying, "Oh, hon, we're at the bottom of the pot today and it's real salty, you don't want it," only to return a few minutes later to report that she'd tasted it, it was OK, and I could have some if I wanted.) When I was 8, French onion soup seemed the most sophisticated food I'd ever encountered--soup with bread and cheese in it!--and Kibby's version is a dead ringer for the thick, salty, gloriously gloppy dish that rocked my Nixon-era world. Those of you who like French onion soup--you know who you are--will like Kibby's.
This being an official walk down memory lane, I brought my mother and grandmother along to stroll with me. Mom tried the Maryland crab soup ($2.40 cup/$3.25 bowl), a beefy, spicy broth graced only scantily with diced vegetables and crab flecks, and the soft crab sandwich (market price, $7.95 on this visit). She enjoyed the sandwich, which sported two diminutive softshells instead of the usual single big boy; despite their small stature, the crabs were tender (no paper shells here) and well-seasoned.
My grandmother went for the crab fluff ($10.50). I'm not a big crab-fluff fan; battering and deep-frying a perfectly good crab cake seems like a waste to me, since the cakes often soak up so much oil in the process that they're rendered, well, gross. But Kibby's uses some sort of tempuralike batter and the shortest of dips in the fry-o-later to produce a pleasingly light crab cake encased in a crispy jacket of dough. I found myself really digging the fluff; fortunately, the navel-orange-sized crab ball was more than ample enough to share. It was a cake from the plenty-o'-binder-and-shreds-of-meat school, but it tasted abundantly of crab and Old Bay. I've had so many wimpy crab cakes recently, it was good to find one where the kitchen does not fear to wield the yellow, red, and blue can with abandon.
And, lucky me, I got the shrimp salad. Kibby's is well aware of its No. 1 draw and offers it in several permutations. You can get it straight up, as a salad platter, or as "Kibby's Famous Shrimp Salad Sandwich" ($8.80). A slightly smaller version thereof is available for a buck less; there's also a platter ($16.25; go for the fresh thick-cut fries and exemplary cole slaw for sides), or you can try the shrimp salad wrap ($9.25)--who says Kibby's hasn't kept up with the times? Finally, you can get it to go by the half pint, pint, or quart, like so much very, very expensive ice cream ($8.80/$17.20/$34). (Pretty much every senior citizen in the place seemed to be chowing on the shrimp salad in some form; interestingly, I noticed many of them were drinking Michelob Light along with. Hmmm. Is there some heretofore secret taste sensation to combining the two?)
The stuff was as good as always--large pink shrimp lightly tossed in dressing with a generous dose of Old Bay and tiny bits of celery for crunch and flavor. Simple, straightforward, excellent. It was just what I wanted from our Kibby's experience; things have changed very little here over the years, and that's a very good thing. I'll be back soon for the karaoke Saturday night, and more shrimp salad.
Gone shrimpin': Dishthis@hotmail.com.