Jimmy Cantler’s

Cantler's Sign

Okay okay. I did go to Annapolis and enjoy the lovely downtown area. But the real reason for the short trip out to Annapolis? Jimmy Cantler’s Roadside Inn. Basically, crabs.

We arrived around 7pm on a Sunday evening, and were notified of a 90 minute wait. 90 minutes waiting for a small restaurant – any restaurant – in the District would cause outrage. But here at Cantler’s, where it was clear folks came from far and wide to have a crack at the crabs, it was just another normal night. And frankly, better than the two-hour estimated wait that I later overheard.

table of crabs

The inside of the restaurant was pretty much what I though a crab restaurant in Maryland should look: slightly dank, musty from the smell of crabs, long wooden tables covered with butcher paper and piles of clam carcasses. The loud buzz of conversation was only interrupted by the pounding of mallets, and the occasional bouts of laughter from groups of friends. A huge bar on the left half of the restaurant provided a rowdy dine-at-the-bar option, with other patrons hovering behind bar stools calling out for beers while they waited.

Blue Crabs

The weather outside was pleasant, so we managed to get in our orders for several cans of beer at the bar, and then joined the other crowds of people in the parking lot and down along the waterfront, where we watched a Cantler’s employee sorting fresh caught blue crabs (so small compared to their Pacific brethren!) in what I call the ‘crab staging area’.

watching crab picking

Our little group of four found a nice, removed spot on the dock, where we watched boats coming in and out for gas and for crabs. We made it through two cans of Fat Tire, each, and a sunset in the hour+ wait.

Fat Tire on the Dock

When we were finally seated, we were starving. The menu was fairly extensive, with more options I would have guessed. There was quite a varied seafood selection, including crab cakes, mussels, king crab legs, steamers, shrimp, fried fish, and more. There were also non-seafood options for people who were crazy enough to go to a crab joint and not like crab or fish.

Crabs were sold according to size, and depending on the catch that day. Our server informed us of what was available: Large, and Extra Large. By the 1/2 dozen, dozen, and bushel. I’m going to blame our hunger and over-eagerness to eat crabs, but for our party of four we ordered an appetizer of blackened rockfish bites over coleslaw, followed by a dozen (half Large, half Extra Large) Old Bay seasoned steamed crabs, along with hush puppies and four ears of steamed corn. Oh, and a rack of ribs.

seasoned steamed crabs

crabs dumped on our table

When our crabs arrived on a large red cafeteria tray, they were promptly dumped onto our butcher paper-lined table. Free for all! Equipped with a mallet and pick each, what followed was nothing short of ugly. Kind of reminiscent of another one of my recent crustacean-involved gastronomic endeavors….

cracking open crabs

I’m used to eating crabs from the Pacific, which have much harder shells, are larger, and thus have more meat that is slightly tougher. These crabs were small in comparison, but the meat that I managed to extract was tender, and oh-so-flaky! The problem is the shells were doused with what must have been a metric ton of Old Bay seasoning. By the end of my third crab, I could barely feel my lips, as they were numb from an excess of salt.

We did it, though.

the aftermath

the last mallet standing

We finished off the dozen crabs, and only had half a rack of ribs left over. Not bad for a party of four, of which two persons supposedly don’t really like crab. I’ll admit, I did try to over-compensate. Also, my hands, which were covered in crab juice, rib sauce, and seasoning, made it rather difficult to take a decent photo.

Here is where we indulged our bellies:

Jimmy Cantler’s Riverside Inn
458 Forest Beach Road, Annapolis, Maryland 21409
Phone: 410-757-1311

Lobster Bake

We don’t roast goats in California. We don’t build big smokers in our backyards to patiently wait 12 hours until the meat practically falls off the bone. We don’t eat alligator or bison, and we certainly don’t hunt for our dinner. We don’t use that much mayo, we don’t make that much jello, and only recently have we discovered red velvet cake, but only in cupcake form. We think BBQ sauce belongs on pizza, and that salad is an entree. We don’t have lobster rolls or crab cakes, frito pie or key lime pie, and we don’t call fizzy drinks ‘pop’.


We also don’t dig holes in the ground to fill them up with hot coals and layers of fresh seafood and kelp.

Although, we should.

We should enthusiastically adopt all of those things, but mostly that last one about the seafood.

Growing up in California, I had no idea lobster and clam bakes existed. Not until I moved to New York did I hear Martha Vineyardites coming back from July 4 and Labor Day weekends, chatting about clam bake dinners and lobster roll lunches. Eating on the beach? With the ocean as your market? Corn, potatoes, and cholesterol-heavy seafood? Loved. It. I proceeded to be completely marveled with the novelty of the idea, and wondered if I ever would experience a true, bona-fide bake of my own.

So obviously, when I heard that Laura’s family was holding a lobster bake dinner to celebrate her birthday, I did a littlelobster dance.


But we had to wait through a whole day and a half in Maine before the grand dinner. It was torture. Fresh market yogurt – unpasteurized, of course – and homemade granola with tiny wild Maine blueberries. Tasty sandwiches from the local shop in the village. A delicious BBQ’d steak for dinner accompanied by too much of a creamy mushroom risotto (although, I rarely argue for too much risotto). And finally, pie from a famous local pie shop, with heaping scoops of rich vanilla ice cream. More yogurt and wild berries, and more sandwiches. In Maine, the folks seemed to enjoy providing the best of what the land and people can offer, and we happily obliged. So it’s no lie; it was torture – our tummies were crying out for mercy.

Lobster Brothers

But some afternoon kayaking and a dip in the river soothed our full bellies, and as the sun slowly set across the Western horizon, we were miraculously running on empty again. Luckily, the two local lobstermen (brothers!) had arrived an hour earlier, and had built a fort of cinderblocks with a half drum propped in the middle.

Lobsters Baking

Wet kelp is padded on the very bottom of the drum, and in it nestled a layer of onions, potatoes, and corn. On top of that goes a bit more kelp, then the lobsters are piled atop. Two nets, one filled with mussels, the other clams, are added. Finally, more kelp and a layer of wet newspapers cover the top. And of course, you can forget the pot of butter in the corner. Then a technique was explained that amused us all: eggs are placed on the top layer. As the heat slowly rises from the bottom up, the eggs will slowly cook. When the eggs are done – which usually takes about an hour – it is a signal that the seafood beneath is also done.

Lobster on top

In the summers, these brothers go from house to house, party to party, building these lobster bakes and offering their catch to folks all over town. They can serve tiny parties, such as ours, of 20 or so people, and they can serve huge fetes, of upwards of 100 heads. That’s a LOT of lobster. The lobsters in Maine are always fresh caught. In fact, many lobstermen didn’t even go out to catch lobster last year since the yields were so incredibly high and prices got so low. The East Coast clearly needs to show the West Coast some lobster love. Diplomacy through crustaceans, yeahhh.

Charlotte and Oysters

Oh, did I mention there were fresh OYSTERS?!

On the deck, enjoying some truly local Damariscotta oysters – a favorite of mine, for their size. Yum.


By the time we emerged from our showers, and coated with a healthy dose of bug spray, a fire had been raging beneath the homemade fire pit for quite some time. Clouds of smoke were bellowing from the pile of food and kelp. We had a glass of beer and some snacks – you know, to prepare our stomachs for what was to come. Approaching the fire, the air was thick with smoke and seafood. The official smell of Maine, perhaps. The lobstermen peeled off the top layers of kelp to reveal bright BRIGHT red lobsters. We got to taste the mussels from the nets, just to make sure they were ready – perfection.

Lobster Bake Food

Lobster Bake Tray

Our party marched down to the fire and one by one, filled our trays with a bounty of edible delights. It was absolute gluttony at its finest. I loved the absence of forks and knives, and the fact that eating with both your hands and your mouth at the same time was totally acceptable. Conversation was minimal, less the obligatory “ohhmugawd thisissoooo gooood” groan that was uttered at least three times by each individual. Looking down the table, it was just a mad blur of lobsters, corn husks, and hands.

Lobster Dinner

Before I knew it, it was over. The end came too quickly. I had two lobsters, and I’m embarrassed to say I could have had two more. The remains of dinner was a clear massacre, with seafood shells and small puddles of clarified butter and corncobs everywhere.

The End

This experience was a blessing and a curse, because I know I’ll never be able to eat lobster quite as good ever again. Unless of course, I find myself in Maine. Oh, and of course, the company was just as good as the food. How could it not be, when you have little ones who entertain just by being themselves?

Charlotte in Sunglasses

And then, we went inside to eat cake. When in Maine….

Shrimp Rolls

In a city with such a diverse history of immigration, trade, and consequently the mingling of various cultures, Tainan surprisingly retains a strong regional sense. Think of the pride that SF’ers talk about the Bay Area, or the way New Yorkers boast about the Big Apple, or how Chicagoans are so proud of the wind and unnatural living condition that they call Winter. That’s the sort of boasting that occurs in Tainan, perhaps most apparent in its pride for its local dishes.

Shrimp rolls are at the top of the local dishes to try while staying in Tainan. Shrimp, combined with other ingredients, make up a filling that is wrapped in pig belly membrane (stomach? casing? This part got lost in translation somewhere), then battered and deep fried. What you would think to be fishy and offal-y and heavy and oily is very surprisingly light, crispy, savory and flavorful and totally not funky at all. If you can stomach a spring roll, you’ll be able to handle this.

My uncle proudly boasts that he only frequents places that are not tourist traps, and much prefers hold-in the walls in alleyways and shady corridors than anything off a main strip or in a guide book. How he finds these places- well, that is beyond me. But I certainly don’t complain.

The shrimp rolls at the one eatery we visited were sold as quickly as they were made- while we were there, I observed an endless stream of motorscooters pulling up to the counter empty-handed, and leaving with clusters of plastic takeout bags dangling from their scooters. As in-house diners, thanks to the endless turnover of orders, the shrimp rolls were presented to the table scalding hot, freshly fried and perfectly crispy. And what’s fried food without condiments? Each order also came with a side of sesame oil and chinese mustard. Chinese mustard, in case you’ve never had the pleasure of tasting it, is a bright yellow paste that tastes of a combination of wasabi and dijon mustard flavors. Definitely one of my favorite condiments in Chinese cuisine (sweet and sour sauce is NOT a condiment, in my book).

Looking around me, there were many tables of singles and two-tops. Everyone was eating the shrimp rolls and a bowl of house fried rice, some with a bowl of fish ball soup. There are many things I love about going to new places, but nothing beats experiencing new and exciting foods of a new region- then seeing the people of the city eating the same thing I am.


Tainan Eats: Eel Noodle Soup, a new experience

Looking over the itinerary for my trip around Taiwan, there were many things I was excited to try- and none as both eagerly and hesitantly as I was the eel noodle soup.

Piles of noodles. Piles of eels. Buckets of soy sauce, oil, cornstarch, vinegars, peppers, empty bowls laid on the “pass”. Walking up to the stand, one really can’t help but hover for a moment to inspect the the mise en place placed on display. Golden yellow noodles stacked next to a heap of red and black strips of raw eel- a beautiful contrast of textures and colors, and though I’m not sure if they do it on purpose, it’s a great visual precursor to the dinner that you’re about to consume.

In Taiwan, wild adult eels are difficult to catch, and this fact, combined with a surge in farming and domestication techniques over the past couple of decades, have resulted in a very prominent farm-raised eel industry. Eels are actually caught from the wild as babies, with fisherman setting up huge tent-like nets along the coast, catching hundreds of baby eels no more than several cm in length. From then on, the eels are farm-raised in fresh water until they are ready to be sold as food. I’ve heard it’s very rare, today, to find fresh salt-water wild caught eel.

Two brothers man this eel stand, and as they have been serving up the same eel soup for decades, it feels as if fishing and farming and the eel industry with its sustainable food battles make no difference to them. Which, of course they are directly influenced- but as you observe the two men create a dish of simple fried eel noodles, you wonder if they really care. As long as they can serve their eel, in short sleeve t-shirts and flip flops (which they are known to wear, no matter how cold or how hot the weather turns), the issue of farm raised eels seems a world away.

Two brothers: Brother #1 as chef, Brother #2 as host/expo/manager/cashier. As with most other stands in Tainan, to order food one must walk directly to the chef and and quickly verbalize your order- lest you commit the ultimate taboo, taking too much time and holding up both the chef and the line of people that has now gathered behind you. Brother #1, never saying more than a few words to acknowledge your order, takes just a nanosecond to queue up your order behind the others, puts down his head and gets to work. Brother #2, though he has been directing customers, collecting money, and wiping tables, has somehow also heard your order,  and starts shifting and gathering bowls on the pass.

First, noodles get a soak and a sautee with onions into the large, single wok on the burner. Once they receive their appropriate cooking time on the stove, they get transferred to a rusty metal pot, the lid covered, and left there to steam until the dish is ready to be served.

The eels are next. Chef takes the eel filets, which are only partially butchered, and gives them a last minute clean-up and slice up before adding them into his wok with additional spices and sauces. The eel meat is an unbelievably bright-red color, and as he guts and cuts up the eel filets it looks as if he is working with freshly roasted beets.

Once the eel hits the pan, however, the flaccid meat begins to gradually curl up, become noticeably more rigid, and turn a darker color more akin to the original appearance of the live eel. Into the pan gets added some salt, a generous amount of pepper, and depending on whether you order the eel soup or the stir fried eel, various amounts of sauces and oils are also added. There are no measurements, and I would also guess no exact recipe, so every bowl of noodles has the potential to taste different- more peppery, more vinegary, lighter or soupier, than the next.

Finally, when the eel sauce is done, it is poured over the noodles which have just a few seconds ago been portioned out by Brother #2. They work in silence and in complete unison, each in tune with the other, knowing exactly what to do next and when to wait for the other.

The bowls of noodles are served up- and taking a small nibble of eel meat, I ponder whether this flavor and texture in my mouth is what I had actually anticipated. Mind you, the eels in China and Taiwan resemble nothing of the sweet teriyaki-glazed, flaky and tender filets that we often see on top of rice at Japanese restaurants (although, most of those are in fact farm raised in Taiwan). These eels, particularly when raw, resemble more snake than any fish, making it for a more difficult seafood for us foreigners to swallow. I am still having a hard time pinpointing the taste and texture of this animal- the meat was soft, but there was a bit to it at the same time, almost as if I was eating the soft cartilage of beef or a very tender piece of squid. Taste-wise, I found the stir-fried eel to be more palatable than its soupy counterpart, but both had a fairly mild flavor that wasn’t totally overpowering. It was actually much better than I would have imagined, although I couldn’t quite get the imagery of writhing eels out of my head.

Though the generous amounts of eel in each bowl was slightly picked over by yours truly as well as the six year-old that was next to me, the noodles were slurped up by everyone. Wonderfully dense and chewy and long and the perfect width- it was by far the best noodles I’ve had in a long time. And the soup- a thick, sweet and sour soup flecked with chili peppers. It wrapped itself around the long noodles, the soup so thickened with cornstarch that a spoon was almost unnecessary. Almost, because when you finish the noodles, you must have a way to finish the stuff left on the bottom of the bowl.

National Road Fried Eel 民族路炒鱔魚


MingZu Lu and Hai An Lu intersection

Tainan, Taiwan