Drive down to the Maine Avenue Fish Market, in southwest D.C., early on a Saturday evening, and you may immediately regret it. Cars are everywhere, vying for parking and backed up in slow-moving lines; a parade of people move toward the open-air seafood counters, where more long lines await; wholesale trucks pull into the middle of the space to unload crabs at what seem like inopportune times. It’s crowded and chaotic, it smells like fish, you will wait on long lines, and if you happen to have a one-year-old like we do, well, he won’t be happy about it. But as all the locals who drive out of their way to stop here know, the haul you get will be dirt-cheap and super fresh—just the way most of us like our seafood.
Don’t mind the truck backing into the middle of the market.
Newcomers are easily confounded by the system in place. Several long seafood counters display their wares in a large semicircle; a few—including Captain White, where we went—sell fresh seafood and offer separate “cook lines” if you’d like it prepared on the spot (yes, that’s two lines to wait on). For Chesapeake Bay blue crabs, a popular item this time of year, you would purchase your live crabs from the main counter, then take your paper bag/box/bushel over to the cook line, where it’ll be steamed with Old Bay and repackaged back up for you (at no extra cost; tips are appreciated). Further confusing matters are the “cooked crabs”—but not seasoned—offered at the main counters alongside the live ones; one employee told us they’d been cooked an hour earlier and he could season them behind the counter, thus saving us the trouble of the second line. “Who knows when those were made?” the woman in front of us said. “I’d rather wait in line and know exactly when my crabs were cooked.” We had to agree.
A Captain White crab man
And wait we did, for what seemed like way longer than we should have for a dozen crabs. Not wanting to miss our number getting called, we took turns walking around to gape at the seafood on display—catfish for $1.49 a pound!—and toyed with the idea of getting some clam chowder from another counter, but neither of us could bear the thought of yet another line. Finally, we were called and, steaming-hot crabs in hand, made our way back to our rental car, sidestepping discarded corn cobs between sighs of relief. (You can also eat there, at the covered open-air seating some of the stands provide.)
Our crab haul!
We had to wait some more—till after our son was in bed, till we figured out a safe place to eat them in our borrowed apartment—before we could actually dig into those crabs. But then our good friends downstairs set up a small table in front of their stoop, covered it in newspaper, and broke out a hammer, a bottle of wine, and lots of napkins—and suddenly, the wait was worth it.