Monday, June 29, 2009

Summer Eating: Hard Shell Crabs In Philadelphia

Not in Philadelphia, but you get the idea | Photo via NY Times

Crabs. Cold beer. Summer. A pretty heavenly combination.

In order to shed some light on where to eat hardshell crabs in Philadelphia this summer, we are excerpting this article that was originally published in the Philadelphia Inquirer back in 2003.
Pulling in your catch at a crab house

Enjoy the fruits of others' labor at a spot with a hard-shell specialty.

By George Ingram
For The Inquirer
Thu, Jul. 24, 2003

For family fun, you can't beat catching and cooking your own crabs. But on a hot, humid summer's eve, it's often saner to seek refuge with a pile of spicy hard-shells and a frosty pitcher of beer in an air-conditioned crab house.
What defines a crab house?

First, it's a neighborhood taproom with crabs cooked on the premises. Other seafood may be served, but the place reeks of cayenne pepper, chili powder, and bay leaves. The proprietor often boasts of having a secret blend of spices like no others.

Served clean or "dirty" (with spice residue), crabs are available at the bar. A separate dining area should shield sensitive patrons from the rare garbage-mouth holding court by the tap.

Here are just a few favorites. The price and availability of crabs can vary daily, so always call ahead.

- Byrne's Tavern

Frank Byrne is in his 25th year as a Port Richmond tavern keeper. In that time, he's seen big changes in crab availability and prices. "When I started, a bushel cost me $18, and we actually made money," Byrne said. "Today I just paid $125 for a bushel. I make a lot more on the 2,000 pounds of chicken wings I sell each week."

Byrne says the Chesapeake "produces the finest crab, for texture and taste," but he also buys from Texas and Louisiana.

On a recent night, large Marylands were going for $6 each, small ones for $2.50. They are boiled and served clean or, at the customer's request, dirty. "A boiled crab tends to be juicier than a steamed crab," Byrne avers. And don't forget the secret spice recipe. "There's no such thing as Old Bay at Byrne's Tavern. Never," he said.

Byrne's, Richmond and Westmoreland Streets, 215-423-3444. Closed Sunday.

- Bonk's Bar

This comfortable old bar sits a few blocks north of Byrne's. As you sip a beer, you can stare behind the bar at large plastic tubs where cooked crabs lie immersed in reddish-brown cooking liquid. On a recent night two large, juicy crustaceans cost $11. In a second tub were mediums, for $4.50 each.

Some patrons have griped about an "attitude" at Bonk's. But it has been around since 1957, which makes it one of Philly's treasured crab houses.

Bonk's. Richmond and Tioga Streets, 215-634-9927. Closed Sunday.

- Boncela's Cafe

Joanne Clements has been serving crabs at this East Frankford fixture for 35 years. These days, her hard-shells come from Florida, Louisiana, and Maryland. Each order of boiled crabs comes with a plastic bucket of steaming-hot cooking juice for dipping and soaking the crabs, whose shells are a match for the cafe's red decor.

Large, meaty Maryland crabs, cooked in the basement by Tony Santiago, sold recently for $5.50 each. Hunched over a table and a pile of cracked shells, former Cinnaminson resident Steve Chando (now living in Naples, Fla.) told us: "I always stop by here when I'm in town."

Boncela's, Orthodox and Milnor Streets, 215-537-8039. Closed Sunday.

- Harmonia Club

This 101-year-old Polish American club in East Frankford is private, but social memberships are available for $10 a year. It was once the province of the late, legendary crab cooker Eddie Kasper. I still remember the night of his viewing, when members picked up roses from the bar, walked across the street to Walczak Funeral Home, and placed them on Eddie's bier.

Eddie's children inherited his spice recipe but are not cooking crabs. Good, spicy crabs are still available at Harmonia, however. The cook is Jeff Kalman, owner of nearby Regency Caterers and a former Boncela's partner. Large Maryland crabs, served dirty with dipping liquid, were selling for $5 recently.

Harmonia Club, Aramingo and Orthodox Streets, 215-533-4390. Crabs available Tuesday through Saturday.

- Chickie's & Pete's

There are several Chickie's & Pete's in town, but the one that best epitomizes a Philly crab house is the original in Wissinoming. There's a bowl to rinse your hands after devouring a messy order of three large, cleaned crabs ($15.95) in a spicy red sauce, bread on the side. "I make a Polish/Italian style of crab that took years to perfect," said owner Pete Ciarrochi.

Many of his hard-shells are flown in from Florida's Gulf Coast. "When those crabs get out of their boxes, they're fired up," Ciarrochi bragged.

Chickie's & Pete's, 4010 Robbins St., 215-338-3060. Open seven days a week.
That 'price and availability' line is key — definitely be sure to call ahead.

Also, there's Yesterday's, which Philebrity highlighted a few years ago.

At some of these places, crabs can come out cold (as we also experienced at Bomb Bomb Bar in South Philly), which means they were cooked in advance in a one batch rather than being prepared to order. WHICH IS NOT the ideal way to enjoy hardshell crabs.

So if you truly want the real thing, you might actually have to leave Philadelphia. When that time comes, jump in the car, hop on 95 and make the hour-drive south to Maryland and head to the Howard House Tavern in Elkton, the Tap Room Crabhouse in Chesapeake City, Price's Seafood in Havre de Grace, Woody's Crab House in North East, or the Wellwood Rivershack in Charlestown.

But that's what Philly Car Share is for — you'll be back before anyone even knew you were gone.

Hopes for blue-crab catch stir a sleepy spot in Md. [ Philadelphia Inquirer ]
Craig Laban Review of Howard House Tavern [ Philadelphia Inquirer ]
* There is no link to the original 'Pulling in your catch at a crab house' article on account of the notoriously awful archives at

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The original Chickie's is in MAYFAIR, not Wissanoming!