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Sue Island Dock Bar, Essex


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This is Sue Island Dock Bar in Essex, an eastern suburb of Baltimore. Arguably this is the single best crab house in the entire state of Maryland. I type this having been to most of them from Cantler's to Waterman's to Popes Creek to Crisfield and Bill's Terrace Inn. This may be the best. And the absolute best place on the face of the earth to spend Memorial Day in the Mid Atlantic states. Basically it is unknown outside of a local group of faithful, many of whom do not want it to appear on boards like this. But it is exceptional. It is also going to receive a lot of publicity in the coming days. Sue Island Dock Bar.

One photo at dusk: http://www.flickr.com/photos/susie_tomato/2707170910/

Google location:

http://maps.google.com/maps?f=q&source...328903&z=12

Video shows the ambience with the band playing! http://vids.myspace.com/index.cfm?fuseacti...nelID=384258117

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I went there last night. And yes, it's exceptional. Of course, if it does get lots of publicity, that's likely to completely change the character and quality of the place. Sometimes you can really help out a struggling business owner by ensuring that the word gets out about an otherwise overlooked gem (see Grace Garden).

But other times all that happens is that a once great, blue collar place becomes overrun with Beamers in the parking lot and self-involved yuppies complaining about the service.

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I went there last night. And yes, it's exceptional. Of course, if it does get lots of publicity, that's likely to completely change the character and quality of the place. Sometimes you can really help out a struggling business owner by ensuring that the word gets out about an otherwise overlooked gem (see Grace Garden).

But other times all that happens is that a once great, blue collar place becomes overrun with Beamers in the parking lot and self-involved yuppies complaining about the service.

Hey, Jon, since you seem to be the authority on which restaurants are okay for certain people to visit and which aren't, I don't have a Beemer, but I do drive a '95 SUV, and while I don't live in Harbor East, I do live in Little Italy which is only two blocks away, so I'm a little unclear on whether or not I make the cutoff. Am I allowed to eat at Sue Island? Please advise. I don't want to violate the demographics and crowd level you've deemed appropriate for the place. And I'll tell everybody else to check with you first to make sure it's okay.

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Am I allowed to eat at Sue Island?

Only if you're an attorney. :D

[Everyone play nice, be gentle, enjoy the long weekend.]

(Speaking of Essex crabhouses, how is Schultz's these days? I assume pretty much the same as when I was last there ten years ago?)

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Only if you're an attorney. :D

[Everyone play nice, be gentle, enjoy the long weekend.]

(Speaking of Essex crabhouses, how is Schultz's these days? I assume pretty much the same as when I was last there ten years ago?)

We returned to Sue Island late this afternoon and had a different experience than we did on our first visit. Yes, it is a great crabhouse: there is absolutely no question of that. Almost everyone of the 125 to 150 there at 7:00PM was seated at a table with brown paper and mallets and piles of crab shells in front of them. Few had anything other than crab or beer or a soft drink in front of them.

Except us.

The jumbo Louisiana crabs (Maryland crabs are not available this early yet they carry them exclusively in season; Carolina crabs are served for smaller sizes) were $80 a dozen and available. With J.O. seasoning liberally caked on them they were superb; superb! Throw in a couple of musicians with a bit of blues and rock, tiki torches being fired up outside with the inlet nearby-this was a great spot to spend Memorial Day weeked. Even inside in the concrete and cinder block bunker of a building most tables were filled with the sound of mallets and rock in the background.

Simply the definitive Maryland crab house and crab eating experience. For the vast majority who go only for this Sue Island is as good as it gets.

But, for us, this is not a definitive Maryland seafood restaurant. On this trip we had more than a half dozen jumbo crabs. We worked our way through cream of crab soup, vegetable red crab soup, two "lump" crab cakes, homemade onion rings, freshly made Pina Coladas, cole slaw and potato chips. None of this was very good. None of it.

The lump crab cakes were made with either Indonesian or Venezualan crab meat (our server didn't know which, just that it came from a can and "wasn't as good as the crabs we serve.") A great deal of orange binder melded them together. They were served with commercial slaw and potato chips. The cream of crab soup was bound together with flour and had a lump of flaky claw crab meat on top of it. I'm not sure which crab and which continent it may have come from. Having eaten crab cakes all over the state of Maryland as well as making them and cream of crab soup myself this only provided a reason why everyone was eating crabs: there was nothing else especially good. The onion rings were huge-they would have done Calabash and Logan's Roadhouse proud. Yet, there was a problem: the literal puddle of grease in the bottom of the container. I have been to restaurants where I've described frying as "high art;" this was frying as low art. It couldn't have been easy to create a dish that would ooze more grease when it was served. The red crab soup had a good base with fresh vegetables but the same tasteless flakes of a nondescript shellfish on top of it. The Pina Coladas lacked liquor or at least so they tasted.

At 7:00 on Sunday of Memorial Day weekend 11 tables were empty outside with the sun about to set and the temperature at 80 degrees. Inside-a true nondescript concrete bunker of a roadhouse-there were only three tables empty. Still, I was shocked that there was not a line to get in. I couldn't help but wonder what kind of business they might be doing on a weeknight. Remember, this is a seasonal business-they are dependant on real crowds for the five or six good months to offset the fall and the winter. Our server told us that "we just took it back over last summer and thought we'd give it a try ourselves." Apparently over the past ten or so years there have been other people trying to "make a go of it" in this restaurant. With such a limited season and the very real need for strong business every day they are open in this time, it is not easy.

But they are trying. They are trying hard. As a crab house-only as a crab house-again, it is honestly, one of Maryland's best. But if your expectation is for more than crabs I would seriously consider going someplace else. For ourselves, driving 155 miles roundtrip from Reston, we will not return. For this kind of an investment in miles we'll return to Stoney's, the Narrows (who have the best crab cakes and cream of crab soup of all) or drive further to Suicide Bridge or Waterman's in Rock Hall. But as I noted from looking at what was on the many tables I walked by, most people at Sue Island were eating ONLY crabs; we were the exception. I should also mention that at Cantler's (as most other crab houses) eating crabs are the rule. Cantler's is also very much like Sue Island, i.e. the "sides" are not very good. Yet for many Cantler's is the "standard." As is also Sue Island. Both as crab houses which is what most (not us) go to them for!

I also now need to return to Bill's Terrace Inn. On my only visit there I really loved the crabs also. But I haven't had anything else-I need to try more. Yet, Bill's on my only visit reminded me of the "original" Bo Brooks on Harford road which I must have gone to at least twice a year, every year from about 1970 until it moved to the Inner Harbor. I loved this place-not just for the crabs but also for the "sides."

And, perhaps that is my problem: I believe that a great crab house should be about more than just crabs. It should include great soup, great crab cakes, really good sides and more. For many people-perhaps for most people-a crab house is something entirely different. It is about local crabs in season, cold beer and camaraderie in a comfortable setting. For the latter Sue Island is everything that anyone could want. But not for me.

One last comment for Jon Parker who wrote this: "But other times all that happens is that a once great, blue collar place becomes overrun with Beamers in the parking lot and self-involved yuppies complaining about the service." For almost thirty years I have sold to seasonal businesses. Like a crab house they have a limited number of days to make it. In my industry, as this, they are affected by weather as well as the economy. Simply, they MUST be crowded on most "core" dates or they will not be around to survive for the next year. They actually have to be crowded, they have to fill every seat they can. If they don't they may not survive. It's not an easy business when you have so few days. I wouldn't begrudge a short wait for a table, even a long wait for a table if it means the restaurant will be around to serve you the next year.

Sue Island may not be worth a drive from Reston or D. C. but I do understand that it is a treasure for many; it needs all the business it can get. It is, indeed, a great crab house. There aren't a lot of them around-this is one that needs to survive. There aren't a lot of places that have jumbos with J. O. seasoning at seven on Sunday night...

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Joe, it's not a "seafood restaurant," it's a crab house.

It's a treasure because it's a real crab house -- fat, heavy crabs liberally seasoned with JO and dumped piping hot on your table, served with lots of very cold beer. You're right, anything off the menu sucks. But that's not what it's about. I completely disagree that a good crab house needs a good soup, a good crab cake, or least of all good onion rings.

The old Angelina's (which got raves from you) had what was arguably Maryland's best crab cake, but the rest of the menu was barely edible. Canned veggies? Yep. Fries and onion rings from freezer bag to fryer to table? Yep. They did one thing very well, and sucked at everything else.

Yet that was far less defensible than what Sue Island offers. Angelina's pretended to be a full restaurant. The Sue Island menu is basically there for non-crab eaters who end up accompanying a group. One could easily argue that it would be nice if they did a better job accommodating those unfortunate folks, whose lives are already sadly empty without the further insult of bagged chicken fingers, frozen pizza or greasy onion rings. But that doesn't affect the real mission of the place, which is great crabs and cold beer outdoors by the water. And they do a perfect job of that.

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I read your caveat, but then you spent the rest of your review dissing things that are simply not their claim to fame.

In my admittedly limited experience crab houses don't tend to do other things well. There may be exceptions, but that's the general rule. I try to judge places by what they are and don't try to force them into being something different. If I wanted seafood there's a number of other places I'd choose.

Incidentally, I just got around to watching the video in your original post, and I'm pretty sure that's not Sue Island. It doesn't look like it at all.

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