Yes, that’s a strange designation for a restaurant’s location, especially when you consider the two cities. Charm City (Baltimore) and the Forest City (Cleveland) have next to nothing to do with each other, outside of Baltimore stealing Cleveland’s football team in 1995 and the Ravens and Browns ending up in the same division when Cleveland returned to the NFL in 1999, resulting in some genuine hard feelings between the two locations. Even my uncle Don, who has lived in the Baltimore area for as long as I can remember, was surprised to learn about this additional connection between the cities.
Food-wise, these two share nothing in common. Cleveland is known for the polish boy and for Greek cuisine from immigration to Ohio, while Baltimore is all about pit beef and crabs. Yet it’s the second one that oddly links these two cities together, which makes even less sense. Baltimore and Maryland, which are surrounded by waterways that lead to and include the Atlantic Ocean, are famous across the country for what they do with blue crabs, which are even referred to as Maryland crabs. Unlike snow and king crab, eating blue crab involves the meat in the main body of the crab. Like snow and king crab, the meat is absolutely delicious.
So where does Cleveland, which is on landlocked Lake Erie and certainly not known for crabs, fit into all of this? Strangely and sadly enough, what might be Baltimore’s most well-known crab house, Obrycki’s, operates a franchise in the Cleveland Hopkins Airport along with one at Thurgood Marshall Airport in Baltimore. I say sad because as of last year, the two airport locations are now the only spots that Obrycki’s operates.
Founded in 1944, Obrycki’s was once the place to go for eating fresh blue crab and crab cakes in the city itself — as long as you went at the right time of the year. Obrycki’s original location in downtown Baltimore found it difficult to secure fresh crabs and serve them at that location during the colder months of a Maryland winter, so every year, it would shut down around November and re-open when the winter was over.
Unfortunately, this year, it didn’t re-open when the winter was over. In 2011, Obrycki’s decided that after 67 years, its owners had had enough of their lack of time with their family and announced that when it closed for that winter, it would do so for good, shifting its focus to its airport locations.
Well, I wasn’t going to let a little thing like that stop me on my quest to reach every Man vs. Food restaurant, and that’s how and why I found myself in the Cleveland airport on a layover. Fun fact about me (OK, maybe it’s only fun to me): I schedule my flights according to where I can get the most interesting/enjoyable layover, as long as the price is reasonable. For the moment, Cleveland remains a United hub city (although that could change any day), and with a Thanksgiving trip to see my family on the docket and some encouragement from my always-amazing girlfriend Amy, that allowed the schedule to work perfectly with a stop at Obrycki’s.
Even in a satellite location, there’s no doubt what this place is famous for. As soon as you step into the small Obrycki’s structure, you are greeted with the wonderful smell of fresh crab. As I said before, Obrycki’s is famous for fresh crabs and crab cakes, both of which are Maryland staples. Unlike the deviled crab of Florida, the breading is optional on a crab cake, and if it’s on there, it’s a lighter, softer breading. Crab cakes are not necessarily made to be held while eaten, and they can be either fried or broiled, the latter of which produces no batter on the cake.
Of course, as a lover of pretty much anything that comes out of the ocean, I was here for the crab cakes, which come with fries and cole slaw, plus cocktail sauce and tartar sauce for dipping. Reasoning that this might be the only time I ever get to visit Obrycki’s, I opted to get a pair of the crab cakes, getting one fried and one broiled to truly decide which is better.
In this case, there is no wrong answer, but there is definitely a right answer: broiled. The reason is because the breading of the fried crab cake at Obrycki’s adds little to nothing taste-wise to the crab cake. That’s not a knock on the breading at Obrycki’s. It’s just that the crab cakes are so good that Obrycki’s recognizes that it doesn’t have to have anything else in the way of flavoring, because it would just get in the way of what you want to taste, the crab.
What makes the crab cakes so awesome is simply the quality of the crabmeat. At many places, the crab cakes are held together with bread crumbs, eggs, mayonnaise, sauces, even vegetables, giving it a multitude of tastes in the mixture. At Obrycki’s, the crab cakes are held together by simply packing the crab together densely enough that it holds in the shape of a patty. The result is that big, meaty chunks of crab are scattered throughout the cake, providing a fresh taste of the ocean.
That’s why broiled is the way to go. When it’s fried, the batter merely gets in the way of the amazingness that is the crab. When broiling, the crab simply comes out ready to be eaten, with nothing between your taste buds and the meat. Plus, it’s also healthier. There really is no downside. For those who must go fried, there’s nothing wrong with fried, as it still tastes great. I just think broiled tastes better.
Along with the slaw, I made sure to sample Obrycki’s crab soup. This is a bit different from the she-crab soup at Wintzell’s, as it’s more of a vegetable soup that has chunks of crab mixed in. Creamier crab soups tend not to be found in the Mid-Atlantic states like Maryland, but the broth base works well too. What’s important is the meat, and the meat is excellent.
The sides are plentiful, as they add a mountain of fries and some cole slaw that is very high-quality. I am normally not a slaw fan, but Obrycki’s slaw was actually quite good, rather than being too vinegary to correctly work.
But let’s be honest, the slaw is not the reason anyone comes to Obrycki’s, nor are the non-seafood options. What you come for is crab, and they certainly know how to make crab great. It’s a shame that the only way to experience it now is to buy an airplane ticket and go through either Baltimore or Cleveland, but it’s better than Obrycki’s disappearing entirely. Hopefully, someday, they see fit to re-open a stand-alone version, but for now, it’s the best airport food you’ll ever experience.
Time to go: Lunch/dinner, and make sure you have time if you’re on a connection flight. This place can get very crowded, as it is quite popular and offers a detailed alcohol menu if you’re into that sort of thing. Plan on being there for a while.
Wait during my visit: Took a while, but that was also because my server took her sweet time. If you get an attentive server, it will go down.
Location: Obrycki’s can be found inside Thurgood Marshall (Baltimore/Washington) International Airport in Baltimore and inside Hopkins International Airport in Cleveland. It has no free-standing locations.
Parking: N/A. As it is impossible to reach by car, no parking is needed.
Cost: Substantial. Obrycki’s crabs are very expensive, and two crab cakes with sides will cost $30. However, it’s worth it to experience great crab cakes.
Seating arrangement: Bar and tables
Specialty items: Crab cakes