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Crab Cakes

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Maryland's Signature Dish But Were Too Hungry to Ask

Henry Hong
GOLDEN STANDARD: A Breezy Point Seafood Co. crab cake, in all its glory.
Henry Hong
ROLL YOUR OWN: The author's recipe, broiled.
M. Wartella

Know Your Grades Of Crabmeat

Commercial crabmeat is separated into numerous industry grades, but retail consumers generally encounter these four:

Jumbo lump

The largest pieces of meat from a blue crab, taken from near the rearmost legs of the animal, with little or no shell. This is the highest, most expensive grade, and more difficult to find than the others. Because the pieces are so large, they are also the most difficult to form into cohesive cakes. Domestic jumbo lump is quite delicate and must be handled gently.

Backfin, or lump

Fair-sized, intact chunks of meat, smaller than jumbo lump. This grade is often mixed with jumbo lump for economy and to aid in cake formation. Take heed that in the past the term "lump" was interchangeable with "jumbo lump" but now seems to be used to label this lesser grade. Look out for shady packaging--some containers will have attractively large lumps on top (visible through the cover), and lesser-quality meat on the bottom. Very little shell.

Special

The smallest pieces of white body meat often combined with broken pieces and fibrous meat. There are few intact chunks. It comes from the smallest chambers and is hard to pick, and thus has the greatest potential to contain shell fragments.

Claw

The dark meat of the crab; some claim it tastes sweeter and insist that adding some claw meat to crab cakes improves flavor. I'm not convinced--it has flavor intensity, but I don't think it's enough to justify the resulting sacrifice in texture. Best for flavoring soups or serving cold as is. Claw meat cleaves irregularly and lacks the fine resiliency of body meat.

By Henry Hong | Posted 3/5/2008

In 1996, a massive nor'easter buried Baltimore in a thick coat of snow. Usually, snow triggers a primal, inscrutable urge in me to make prison-sized quantities of chili or beef stew, or some other such hearty, survival-friendly food. But I inexplicably found myself craving, of all the nonwintry, cost-ineffective things, a crab cake--a proper homemade jumbo-lump crab cake.

I lived across the street from a Safeway, but a quick call confirmed there was no jumbo lump there. I realized that my only option was to walk my nondriving ass to Faidley's, which, amazingly, was open. Nothing was plowed, the snow was high and heavy. I trekked a mile and a half through muted snowy silence and didn't encounter another living thing the whole way. When I finally got there, cold, wet, and tired, I contemplated copping out and just buying a crab cake to go. But having already committed two hours of "uphill both ways"-style travel in the endeavor, the little bit of effort it would take to make exactly what I wanted seemed trivial, and it was a much better value to make them at home.

I picked up a pound of jumbo lump and returned home, tired but triumphant. I arrived to find my roommate Rich just sitting down to his usual tuna sandwich. For some reason, he wanted to "help."

Rich wasn't exactly a food person--his aforementioned tuna sandwiches were straight tuna out the can on bread, just dry, no nothing. He subsisted solely on Ensure for a while. I must have stood there for a solid minute, paralyzed by internal conflict. I certainly didn't want to hurt the guy's feelings. Besides, he's a Ph.D.--how bad could he possibly screw things up?

Hedging my bets, I offered to let him inspect the meat for shell particles, since it's such a quick job (there's rarely any in jumbo lump). He insisted he'd done it many times before, and I left him alone to pick while I changed into dry clothes. Perhaps three minutes later, I returned to the kitchen and was presented with a poofy, gossamer mound--crabmeat, mercilessly and meticulously deconstructed into a million wispy filaments. I always think that if he hadn't had such a goofy, proud smile when he looked up at me and exclaimed, "Check it out, man!" I would have popped him right in the mouth. I mean, a little breakage is to be expected, but seriously, every single lump shredded. You have to really be motivated to inflict such comprehensive damage.

Anyway, after a bit of reflection, he realized the folly of the act and was rightfully contrite. I ended up making what can only be termed "crabbish loaf," and Jebus did it suck. Rich, I wish I was a better person, but I have still have not forgiven you.

Wherefore have we lost the crab cake? It is the regional delicacy, a food as ostensibly familiar to a Marylander as mother's milk. And yet it seems the later you're born, the greater the disconnect. Indeed, many of my friends cite their mom's crab cake as the best but have no idea how to make it themselves. Baby boomers have evidently dropped the ball on passing down crab-cake skills. So, even though we know it's gonna cost us, we suck it up and order them out. Are they really too difficult or inconvenient to make at home, a dish best left to pros? Well, yes and no. Homemade is best, but a bit of a hassle. And kind of like true happiness, money can't buy you a homemade crab cake, but I'm happy to report it can still buy you a very good facsimile.

Domestic crabmeat comes from the animal we know as the blue crab, also sometimes called a blue channel crab, or Callinectes sapidus, which awesomely translates to "beautiful swimmer that tastes good," more or less. A Chesapeake Bay native, it now ranges all along the East and Gulf coasts. Major producers include Louisiana, Texas, Florida, North Carolina, and Maryland. Dwindling populations of both the crabs (due to human impact) and the immigrant workers who pick the meat (due to immigration reform) have driven prices up, leading to major market infiltration by imported meat.

Domestic jumbo lump is resilient yet delicate, possesses sweetness and bouquet, and cleaves in a way best described as "feathery," which is what I think accounts for that especially appealing texture characteristic of quality crabmeat. Maryland crabmeat is reputed to be the sweetest, but I don't think I would be able to distinguish regions among readily available domestic meat in a blind tasting. I've had a crab cake made from meat picked and packed from just-steamed Maryland crabs, though, and it truly is crotch-grabbingly transcendent--clean, sweet, and at once both compact and ethereal.

Crabmeat that comes from Venezuela, Mexico, India, Indonesia, and Vietnam is from an animal known as a blue swimmer crab, a species distinct from the domestic blue crab. They can have similar appearances, but swimmer crabs tend to be spiny and larger and have longer claws. Imported jumbo-lump nuggets are large, bulbous, and smooth, and are denser than domestic, thus less prone to breakage during both packing and cooking. This same hardiness also translates to coarser texture, however, and the meat lacks the springiness and tenderness of domestic--if overcooked, it can border on mealy. Imported meat also noticeably lacks the sweetness of domestic and has almost no smell, which freaks me out a bit. But its ready availability, visual impressiveness, and, perhaps most importantly, lower price make it all but irresistible to restaurants.

What makes crabmeat of almost any provenance taste so good? My theory has always been based on the fact that crabs are opportunistic feeders that eat pretty much anything and everything, and that animals with varied diets have tastier flesh. This is also one of the reasons why crabs are hard to farm, since they tend to eat each other, meaning wild-caught animals are still the standard.

Regardless, we do know that crabs are closely related to lobster and shrimp--a crab's "apron" is a folded-under, vestigial abdomen (tail), while its body is actually an enormous cephalothorax (head). Also, crabs live in brackish coastal waters, and use the amino acid glycine, which has a sweet taste, to balance salt levels. This is perhaps why crabs from certain tributaries with a certain balance of salinity (such as the Wye River) are considered to have superior flavor.

The high cost of jumbo-lump and backfin grades comes mainly from labor costs, since larger chunks must be extracted by hand. A mechanical process, which basically scrapes meat from the shell yields smaller fragments and is usually used in special-grade meat. In addition, sometime this year, local seafood behemoth Phillips is set to roll out a brand-new proprietary grade of meat that consists of large lumps that are assembled from smaller lumps using some sort of naturally derived crab glue. This is not a joke.

An important consideration when buying crabmeat is pasteurization. Producers will sometimes pack meat into metal cans and cook it at a high temperature, killing microbes and thus increasing shelf life. This is often performed on imported meat to allow for extended transport time, but is also done right here in Maryland to keep a supply on hand during the off-season winter months. Pasteurization damages not just the microbes--the meat is blander, slightly denser, and drier--and sometimes uses chemical preservatives that also act as whitening agents, so read the container carefully. I, for one, don't ever intend to buy a can of pasteurized crabmeat--if fresh isn't available, I'll wait until it is.

Probably the least provocative way to describe a Maryland crab cake is to reduce it to its most basic components: meat and binder (which includes any starchy filler, for the sake of simplicity). For crab cakes you use crabmeat obviously; for Maryland crab cakes, you must use meat from a blue crab (see sidebar), a species native to our region. Even the earliest recipe I could find, from Robert May's 1685 Accomplist Cook, specifies "body meat" for use in cakes, as opposed to claw meat, which apparently was often served separately--variants using claw meat from the Dungeness or peeky-toe crabs common in other parts of the country appear doubly erroneous to us natives. Like other meat cakes, its original function was to extend the value of a difficult to obtain protein, and breadcrumbs or "grated bread" is the most commonly called for binder, although it seems Native Americans in the region may have used cornmeal originally. I maintain that the further one strays from this basic outline, the less Maryland the crab cake becomes. In particular, I view the addition of aromatics such as bell peppers or shallots, or "specialty" versions such as a "Mexican" or blackened crab cake, as at best gratuitous and at worst sacrilegious.

Forming small pieces together into a larger mass also allows for otherwise impractical cooking methods that can improve flavor and texture (like frying in butter); furthermore, the binder not only holds lumps together but can also be a vehicle for flavor--the sauce on the spaghetti, if you will. And therein lay the basis for what I believe to be the two major denominations of crab-cake preference: those who eschew binder, regarding it merely as an adhesive, necessary to provide structural integrity and nothing more; and those who like binder, viewing it as an essential component that contributes to all aspects of the dish. The schisms in cooking techniques (broil vs. fry), intensity of seasoning, and shape (ball vs. cake) are directly related.

I happen to like binder. Yes, a crab cake should consist mostly of large chunks of crabmeat, but I think the "cake" half of the name deserves equal attention. Breadcrumbs, bread pieces, and cracker meal are the most common starchy fillers, and the differences are noteworthy. Breadcrumbs are mostly used in their dried form and produce an even, firm, somewhat dry texture. Panko, or "Japanese" breadcrumbs, which are actually particles formed by spraying liquid dough onto a hot surface, produce a less dense, "cakier" texture. Fresh breadcrumbs produce a slightly looser, but still dense, slightly gummy cake. Cracker meal also tends to form a slightly gummy binder, and note that store-bought cracker meal can have added salt. Bread pieces produce a cake with more varied mouthfeel and, if soaked in milk beforehand, make for a tender, moist cake.

The structural stability provided by a starchy binder enables cakes of this style to withstand active handling, such as being flipped by a spatula, and thus are suitable for pan frying. This same integrity allows the cakes to be formed into shapes, the most logical being a flattened disk that maximizes surface contact with the pan. Translation: more delicious crusty brownness on more of the crab cake. Also, frying doesn't require special equipment, has the additional benefits of fast cooking time, and thus reduced moisture loss, and adds richness and flavor via cooking fat. Everything fits together quite logically, and it is no surprise that the earliest crab cakes followed this model.

The presence of extra starches is conducive to, and perhaps even requires, additional flavoring agents. For the past 60 years or so, Old Bay has been the go-to seasoning mix for crab cakes. Some accuse the inclusion of Old Bay in crab-cake recipes of being "modern" and thus not authentic, but it's what I've used my entire life, and I like it. I'd also note that recipes from as early as the 17th century include nutmeg, which I've always guessed to be a major Old Bay component. The well-seasoned, somewhat starchy cake is my preferred style, which is exemplified by the Faidley's crab cake and the surprisingly well-known Sen. Barbara Mikulski recipe (see page 20).

The truly modernized version of the crab cake is the filler-light or even -free version that seeks to utterly abandon the original intent of thrift, reducing the amount of noncrab components to the absolute minimum. But something still has to hold the lumps of meat together, and this is achieved through some egg-based mixture. Mayonnaise is a common option, since it is a very stable egg emulsion that is already prepared and easy to obtain. I have found the most success using mayonnaise and a whole egg. It makes for a sturdy binder that is also rich and tasty. I've tried omitting the egg entirely, but the cakes are way more prone to fall apart, and because the mayonnaise level is upped, the cakes tend to get oily.

Some more involved recipes require thickening an egg mixture over low heat (which, when butter is used, is simply Hollandaise sauce), essentially creating a custard to bind the lumps. A more obscure and trickier method is to use just egg whites. I personally suck at this method. While using just the whites definitely isolates the crab flavor, the ones I've made invariably have a tough, chewy exterior and are pretty hard to keep together. Good examples of this type of crab cake are the ones served at Angelina's and Oceanaire Seafood Room.

Since the idea is to detract from the crabmeat as little as possible, seasoning is also kept to a minimum. Without any starchy particles, the binder is runny and the crab-cake mix is very loose. As a result, it is easier to pile the mixture into mounds rather than try to shape them in any way. Cakes of this type benefit greatly from chilling for at least an hour before cooking, which helps stabilize the structure. Even after chilling, the cakes are not physically robust. It is risky to move them at all--flipping them over without breaking them apart is exceedingly difficult, so frying is not practical.

When turning the food is not an option, and only a few pieces might need to be cooked at a time, a broiler is a good option. The heat source is above the food, so visible surfaces can be browned and the cake can finish cooking without any additional handling. The ideal result will be a very mild crab cake, with lumps that tumble forth when cut into. The key to this style of cake is using very good meat, as there really is no place to hide subpar quality and the egg flavor can overwhelm. But broiling has its drawbacks: If the cake is broiled too long, the top half will dry out; not long enough, and the interior will remain runny. Broiling is especially tricky for the home cook for two reasons. First, home broilers are not as powerful as commercial ones found in restaurants, and so cakes take longer to cook, increasing the chance of drying out. Second, how often does anyone actually use the broiler at home? Other than making nachos for the Super Bowl two years ago, the only time I've used mine was in researching this article. I've found that lack of familiarity with a piece of cooking equipment increases your chance of making a mistake (like overcooking, which is what I did).

Recently, more and more crab cakes are being served deep fried, which combines ease of execution with fast cooking and even browning. Deep frying makes crab cakes more prone to greasiness, however, and is difficult for the home cook to perform. Crab cakes can also be baked in an oven, but this makes the most sense when many are cooked at once, chilled and refrigerated, and then reheated as needed. Possibly the best compromise is a small convection oven known as an air fryer, in which heated air is rapidly circulated around food. Cooking time is short, and deep even browning can be achieved. Unfortunately, the things aren't very popular around here--only one restaurant I sampled used one (with freakin' awesome results), and if you have one in your kitchen, well, you probably don't need my assistance in any culinary endeavor. In any case, if you have a preferred cooking method, make sure to say so. Most places I visited didn't ask if I wanted "fried or broiled," which was once a standard part of the ordering process.

Trying to get to the bottom of this whole thing, I had a group of eight testers over for a homemade crab-cake showdown, pitting my torn bread and Old Bay style against a friend's favorite recipe, her mom's mayo-heavy cracker-meal crab cakes. We each made a fried and broiled batch of our versions as well. When my friend divulged it was her first time ever actually making crab cakes, I expected to coast to an easy win--no, it wasn't a competition but . . . what am I saying, of course it was a competition. In the end, however, tasters split 50/50 on both recipe and cooking method.

Everybody likes theirs a little different, so I concluded that it is not feasible or helpful to simply rank various restaurants. Instead, I felt delineating meaningful criteria that can be quantified objectively would be more useful.

What follows is a roundup of a dozen local offerings. I felt it important to include subjective comments as well--keep in mind I am openly binder-loving. I was guided mostly by "word on the street" buzz or longstanding reputation. I also kept my survey exclusive to crab cakes advertised as "jumbo lump." I didn't get to visit all the places I wanted, and even if I had, the list would still be egregiously incomplete. I included my own recipe as a control. Ultimately, I've managed to come away with some important lessons:

Don't believe the hype. Some of the most disappointing crab cakes were from places with the best reputations. The quality of food at any restaurant is subject to ups and downs, which is why it's important to re-evaluate them periodically without prejudice.

Ask where the meat comes from. There is a significant difference in quality between domestic and imported, and if you're selling (or for that matter buying) crab cakes in Maryland, it's something you should know. Some restaurants insisted that at this time of year it's impossible to get anything but imported meat. I succeeding in finding reasonably priced, domestic-meat crab cakes in the dead of the off-season, so, in fact, it is possible.

More expensive doesn't always mean better. Crab cakes are a luxury , and if you're out to find a truly great one, you should expect to pay for it. But money is money, and again, the quality of the meat is paramount and does not always correspond to price.

Have it your way. The vast majority of places deep-fry by default. If you want it pan-fried or broiled, say so, because chances are you won't be asked.

DIY. It's almost always a much better value to make crab cakes at home. I've provided my own recipe and some basic tips. If you're an anti-binder type, I can't be of much help; sorry to let you down.

Legend

Jumbo-lump ratio: The amount of intact jumbo lumps relative solely to other meat, i.e., broken pieces or lesser-grade meat. 5 indicates 100 percent intact jumbo lumps.

Meat quality: Texture and flavor of meat. 5 indicates highest quality.

Seasoning level: 0 indicates total absence of seasoning, 5 indicates the threshold of being overseasoned.

Binder level: The amount of starchy filler relative to meat. 0 indicates none, 2.5 indicates average, 5 indicates unacceptably high amount.

Density: 0 indicates no structural integrity, 5 indicates density similar to that of a hamburger patty.

Angelina's Restaurant

7135 Harford Road, (410) 444-5545

Price/Size: $11, 5 ounces ($2.20/ounce)

Jumbo-lump ratio: 4.5

Meat quality: 4.5

Seasoning: 1

Binder level: 0.5

Density: 1

Shape: ball

Cooking method: broiled, fried offered

Note: Virtually no seasoning, very delicate, sweet, extremely moist with light browning. Crab cake was snow white, indicating little or no egg yolk. Slight lemony notes, extremely little binder. Meat tasted like domestic, confirmed as such. Lump tumbling occurred. An excellent example of the low-binder, low-seasoning crab cake.

Breezy Point Seafood Co.

9501 Philadelphia Road, Rosedale, (410) 574-7222

Price/Size: $9.59, 6 ounces ($1.58/ounce)

Jumbo-lump ratio: 4

Meat quality: 5

Seasoning level: 4.5

Binder level: 2

Density: 2.5

Shape: ball

Cooking method: deep fried; no choice offered, but broiled available (recommended)

Note: Excellent flavor. Deep-fried cake is golden brown with excellent crust but slightly oily. Meat is of very high quality. Excellent crab flavor and aroma. Broiled cake is probably air-fried (convection-baked) and has even, total browning. Binder is fairly significant but not overly so, probably breadcrumb. Highly seasoned with pronounced mustard flavor. Meat tasted domestic, confirmed as such. My overall favorite.

Eddie's Market

3117 St. Paul St., (410) 889-1558

Price/Size: $7.99/5 ounces ($1.60/ounce)

Jumbo-lump ratio: 4

Meat quality: 2

Seasoning level: 2.5

Binder level: 4

Density: 3.5

Cooking method: baked, no choice

Note: Meat was slightly chewy and almost mealy, possibly due to having been precooked and reheated. Binder was sweet, bready, slightly oily, with some bread pieces equal in size to lumps. Distinct mayonnaise flavor. Uneven browning. Meat tasted imported, confirmed as such.

Faidley Seafood

Lexington Market, 203 N. Paca St., (410) 727-4898

Price/Size: $12.95/6.5 ounces ($1.99/ounce)

Jumbo-lump ratio: 3.75

Meat quality: 4

Seasoning level: 4.5

Binder level: 3

Density: 2.5

Cooking method: deep fried, no choice

Note: Good meat quality, but a surprisingly high amount of cracker-meal binder and broken lump hurt overall texture. Overly sharp mustard flavor, well-seasoned otherwise. Cake was deep-fried and quite oily, with no crust. Meat tasted domestic, confirmed as pasteurized Maryland.

G&M Restaurant and Lounge

804 N. Hammonds Ferry Road, Linthicum Heights, (410) 636-1777

Price/Size: $12.99/9.25 ounces ($1.40/ounce)

Jumbo-lump ratio: 4.5

Meat quality: 2.5

Seasoning level: 1

Binder level: 3.5

Density: 3

Cooking method: broiled, no choice

Note: Obscenely large, with an abundance of large, intact lumps. Meat quality was average. Binder was somewhat bland, with sizable pieces of bread, very eggy, significant mayonnaise flavor. Only other detectable seasoning was perhaps paprika. Very good browning on top, soggy on bottom. Very good overall value. Meat tasted imported, confirmed as such. Cake available uncooked (same price).

Gertrude's

Baltimore Museum of Art, 10 Art Museum Drive, (410) 889-3399

Price/Size: $20/6 ounces ($3.33/ounce)

Jumbo-lump ratio: 1

Meat quality: 3

Seasoning level: 2

Binder level: 4.5

Density: 4.5

Cooking method: pan fried (broiled claimed)

Note: We were told the "Clayton" crab cake special was guaranteed to be 100 percent Maryland crabmeat, via "an exclusive contract with an Eastern Shore family" (J.M. Clayton also distributes imported). Cake was very dense, due to a total absence of lumps--it consisted completely of small filaments and binder. Flavor was good--sweet notes, buttery, very little spice, with excellent crust. Though the cake appeared to be pan-fried, Gertrude's staff insisted it was broiled.

Manor Tavern

15819 Old York Road, Monkton, (410) 771-8155

Price/Size: $17.95/5 ounces ($3.59/ounce)

Jumbo-lump ratio: 2.5

Meat quality: 4

Seasoning level: 3.5

Binder level: 3.5

Density: 3

Cooking method: pan fried, choice

Note: Cake contained a significant amount of smaller meat pieces, perhaps indicating overly vigorous handling. Light lemon juice flavor, Old Bay seasoning detectable. Very good browning, with a good crust. Overall reminiscent of a good, homemade crab cake.

Oceanaire Seafood Room

801 Aliceanna St., (443) 872-0000

Price/Size: $15.95/5 ounces ($3.19/ounce)

Jumbo-lump ratio: 4.5

Meat quality: 4

Seasoning level: 1.5

Binder level: 1.5

Density: 1.5

Cooking method: broiled, no option

Note: Moist with little binder, mild seasoning, and noticeable hints of parsley. Very light browning on top. No egg or mustard notes at all. Similar to but slightly less wet and denser than Angelina's, another good low-binder cake. Meat tasted imported, confirmed as such.

Pappas Restaurant

1725 Taylor Ave., Parkville, (410) 661-4356

Price/Size: $14.95/6 ounces ($2.49/ounce)

Jumbo-lump ratio: 4.5

Meat quality: 2.5

Seasoning level: 2

Binder level: 3

Density: 3

Cooking method: broiled, no option

Note: Large cake with abundant lumps of average quality meat. Excellent browning but little crust. Binder was lemony, sweet, with fairly large bread chunks, slightly salty, quite eggy, sharp mayo flavor. Cake was undercooked and runny in the middle. Meat tasted imported, confirmed as such.

Pierpoint Restaurant

1822 Aliceanna St., (410) 675-2080

Price/Size: $14.50/5 ounces ($2.90/ounce)

Jumbo-lump ratio: 2

Meat quality: 4.5

Seasoning level: 2.75 (smoked)

Binder level: 2

Density: 2.5

Cooking method: pan fried, no choice

Note: Excellent meat quality, though there was significant breakage and lumps were fairly small. Good even browning, light crust, fairly dense, excellent flavor. Binder seemed to be fresh breadcrumb. Components I generally regard as superfluous (e.g., bell peppers) were present but not intrusive. Smoke flavor was subtle enough to escape being considered gimmickry, even added a pleasant dimension. Overall flavor excellent. Meat tasted domestic, unconfirmed.

Roma Café

10517 York Road, Cockeysville, (410) 628-6565

Price/Size: $9.95/6.4 ounces ($1.55/ounce)

Jumbo-lump ratio: 4

Meat quality: 3

Seasoning level: 2

Binder level: 4

Density: 3.5

Cooking method: deep fried, no option

Note: Large lumps of average quality meat. Noticeable mayonnaise flavor, binding had large chunks of torn bread, slight iodine/metallic flavor, good even browning, good crust, deep fried but not oily. Meat tasted imported, confirmed as such.

If forced to rate my own homemade crab cake by similar standards, I'd say:

Henry's

Price/Size: $7.20/5.3 ounces ($1.35/ounce)

Jumbo-lump ratio: 4.5

Meat quality: 4.75

Seasoning level: 2.5

Binder level: 2

Density: 2

Note: Careful preparation and not compromising on meat will produce a crab cake that is difficult to best. Restaurants have to keep production cost low enough to make a profit, and that gives the home cook a big advantage. Plus you can make it exactly the way you like it.

Here's how I like it.

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