A laminated map of the United States hangs on the wall at the Nokomis Crabhouse, with a simple instruction scrawled above it: “Tell us where you’re from.” Diners pluck colorful pins from the wall and push them into the map near their hometowns. Judging by the spread, Crabhouse eaters come from all over, but you’ll notice a thick concentration of pins in one specific area: Maryland. About 90 percent of people who come to the Crabhouse have some kind of ties to the Old Line State, my server tells me, and they come to feast on crabs.
That’s evident even before you walk into the small shack, stuck in a small strip on a stubby peninsula that extends between Dona Bay and Roberts Bay. From the parking lot out back, you can catch a whiff of Old Bay from the kitchen, where cooks are busy steaming up dozens of blue crabs at a time.
Blue crabs are a beloved Maryland specialty that brighten tabletops all summer long. Crabs from Chesapeake Bay are renowned for their sweet meat, kept moist and flavorful during a simple steam. They’re served whole, and diners crack open the shells to extract the goodies inside. The Nokomis Crabhouse’s crustaceans come from the Gulf, where blue crabs are available year-round, but the preparation and presentation are identical to what you’ll find in Baltimore.
The restaurant seats just 44, with 11 four-tops covered by sheets of thick brown paper, ideal for soaking up the juices that spurt out when you crack open a crab. Prices change depending on the market. On a recent visit, crabs were going for $4 each. Or go whole hog: $42 will net you an all-you-can-eat feast. A pair of crabs took about 17 minutes from order to delivery, enough time to catch up on the NBA game replay on the restaurant’s two TVs or to sip from the Crabhouse’s selection of basic beers and cocktails.
Never broken down a crab carcass before? Don’t stress. A meal here comes complete with a hands-on demonstration for newbies. The crabs are served on a metal tray, along with a small wooden mallet, a stubby knife and a miniature fork. My server rips off the meaty claws and shows me how to crack them by banging the knife with the hammer, then walks me through how to pop open the main body to devour the flesh inside.
Relaxing? No. It’s a project, a struggle to extract as much meat as possible, but it makes for a fun challenge. A visit here is less a sit-down meal than a shop class, with the steady thump-thump-thump of hammers and the satisfaction of learning a new and useful skill. The meat itself is sweet and salty, flavored only with generous dollops of Old Bay’s top-secret 18 herbs and spices and a dip of melted butter. One thing I’m surprised to learn: No two crabs taste the same. My second has a sweeter flavor and the flesh is more tender than my first, even though both were cooked at the same time and in the same manner.
This joint ain’t a place for a first date. I’m having a blast deconstructing my crabs, but I’m also making a mess, spewing bits of crab all over the table. My fingers are coated in rust-red spice and my face glistens with butter and crab juice. Come with people who already love you.
Steamed crabs aren’t all the restaurant does. The Crabhouse serves oysters ($11) and chicken wings ($10), plus crab cake sandwiches ($14) and a delicious, crispy-but-delicate fried softshell crab sandwich ($14), another Maryland specialty. The pin I stick in the map on the wall may be on the complete opposite side of the country from Maryland, but for a little while, thanks to this small South County shack, I feel like a Chesapeake native.
Nokomis Crabhouse, 920 S. Tamiami Trail, Nokomis, (941) 485-2722 | Open 3-9 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, noon-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, noon-8 p.m. Sunday