The best crab cake in Charlotte today, according to the son of a Chesapeake Bay waterman
The former bounty hunter who makes what might be Charlotte’s best crab cake came here to find a runaway club owner, and wound up finding his future wife.
Wait, before this gets too sappy, let’s go back.
Jay Davis is from Baltimore. His fiancée, Miketa Proctor, is from Prince George’s County, Maryland, just outside Washington. I was raised one county south of PG. A very Maryland thing I could do right now is tell you the differences between those three areas, but I’ll spare you. The important part is that we met.
I’ve wanted to find them for a long time, even they didn’t know it. For seven years I’ve lived in Charlotte, and for seven years I’ve searched for a restaurant that makes crab cakes the way I remember them — baseball-to-softball-sized, damn near all meat. I’ve talked about it so much that this is probably where my wife, a Charlotte native, will stop reading.
One afternoon in early November, I was driving along Tuckaseegee Road in west Charlotte and saw a sign: “LuLu’s Maryland Style Chicken & Seafood.”
My father, who died earlier this year, rest his salty soul, was a Chesapeake Bay waterman. Long before I knew crab meat came at a cost, I was picking and eating it by the fistful for free.
I’ve lived in North Carolina for nearly 20 years and in Charlotte, the biggest city I’ve ever called home, for seven. The main thing I miss from the land up there, aside from extended family, is a real crab cake.
Charlotte is at least 300 miles from the nearest crab-harvesting estuaries — the Albemarle, Croatan, Roanoke, and Currituck sounds in northeastern North Carolina — and every mile a pound of fresh crab meat has to travel on pavement, the more the price goes up.
Understandably, chefs and cooks in the Piedmont make their best reproductions, using just enough meat to give it the taste, but not so much that the price tag will scare off customers. Reality is, if you trail seafood from the waterman to the packing plant to the distribution hub to the final sale, the price soars to the point where a good crab cake in Charlotte, one made with at least a quarter-pound of crab meat, probably should cost no less than $15. Even more in winter, when blue crabs are all tucked in the mud and waiting for spring.
It’s a risk to build a business around that. Up until this fall, when I walked into LuLu’s, I’ve only found one other crab cake worth spending money on in Charlotte, from the Baltimore Crab Cake Company food truck.
I still hoped for a place I could trust to be in one spot day to day. A place where the people talked like the people I knew from home, where they valued the crab and all its curiosities. It would be more like a carry-out than fine dining. It would look like it’d been through some stuff.
That all twirled in my head when I walked into LuLu’s Maryland-Style Chicken & Seafood one Friday in November, and met Jay and Miketa. First impressions were good: The parking lot is rough and torn up.
I actually ordered another dish, Jay’s saucy specialty, the Hookup, to eat in the restaurant. I talked to them but didn’t mention I was a writer. Just told them I was from Maryland, too. And took a crab cake to go, because I didn’t want to eat it in front of them, for fear of showing my disappointment.
Turns out I didn’t have to worry about that. And when I went back and started asking them questions about how they arrived at a place in life where they could do this, I certainly couldn’t foresee where my Charlotte crab cake saviors would take the conversation.
The name, LuLu’s, is an ode to Jay’s mother. And before we can get to her we have to go back to when he didn’t know her.
Jay spent a good part of his childhood thinking another woman was his mother. He lived with his grandmother in Baltimore until he was 5, then moved to South Carolina with his father. He called his father’s girlfriend Mom.
Then when he was 9, Jay’s dad died in a boating accident. Left to take care of the boy who wasn’t hers, the woman sent him to live with his uncle, back in Baltimore.
Not long after he returned, Jay was in the backseat of a car leaving church when a woman pointed at the car and screamed: “That’s my son!”
“I remember being in this white Buick Regal,” Jay says. “My mom saw me and she pointed at me and started crying.”
Jay asked who it was. His uncle told him it was his mother. Lulu.
They arranged a meeting later that week. And when Jay walked up to his mother’s porch, all of her family was standing there.
Still, he says he didn’t have much of a relationship with her until he was an adult. Some of that is his fault; some is hers. He started selling drugs as a teenager in west Baltimore, got arrested several times, and dropped out of high school. Fed up, she sent him to live with his grandmother in South Carolina again. He finished high school there, and not long after that, he called Lulu while on the bus to basic training.
“‘What does that mean, Martel?’” he remembers her saying. She always called him by his middle name. “I said, ‘I’m on the bus.’”
In a way, the fact that she worried meant more than any gesture of his childhood. From then on, Lulu was his date to military balls. She called him every year on his birthday at 12:01 a.m.
He started in the Navy but went through the blue-to-green transfer program and joined the Army, where he served until 2012 — stationed all over the world, from Korea to Iraq to Kuwait to Fort Benning, Georgia.
After that he came home to Maryland and took a job with the Department of Defense to be close to her. He helped care for her until, after several strokes and heart issues, she died in 2014. When he told me that, I nodded; my father died after several strokes and heart issues.
In that time, someone looked at Jay — a barrel-chested guy with military training — and asked him if he’d ever thought about trying bounty hunting. (Editor’s note: This is where our similarities end.)
He hadn’t considered it, but in spite of any reservations and fears he had, he tried it. Turns out, he was pretty good at it. He traveled all over the east coast looking for fugitives who’d fled Baltimore.
One of those trips involved coming to Charlotte and finding a club owner. He called a bail bondsman here for tips and area knowledge. He was pulling into the city when he learned the man he was chasing had been arrested. Still, he stopped by the office. That’s where he met Miketa, the bail bondsman’s daughter.
“Wasted trip,” he says, looking over at her and smiling.
“Not completely,” she says, shoving his shoulder.
Miketa was raised near Washington, land of the mumbo sauce, which falls somewhere between barbecue and sweet-and-sour on the sauce spectrum. It’s a staple of old-time, black-owned carryout restaurants on the southeast side of D.C. and Prince George’s County.
“I want five wings and fries, salt, pepper ketchup, mumbo sauce,” Miketa says, reciting a popular order.
Like a good crab cake, mumbo sauce can transport people to a place and time, and to people who’ve come and gone.
About other places that do that: Jay and Miketa had their first date at Waffle House. They started a long-distance relationship for three months. Then, in early January 2017, Jay’s grandmother in South Carolina died. He came down for the funeral, stopped in Charlotte on the way back to see Miketa, and never left.
Jay started a bail bonds business here, but one day Miketa challenged him with a question: “What makes you happy?”
He’s 36, with kids from a previous relationship living in Baltimore and South Carolina and, as it happens, at Fort Bragg.
Eventually he told her he wanted them to have something to pass down to the children. They agreed they wanted to work together during their days. They both love to cook, so they started looking for a space to open a restaurant. They tried about 20 locations, they say, before finding the empty one at the corner of Tuckaseegee and Berryhill.
Jay proposed to her on Labor Day weekend. They closed on the building later that month, painted and put up new signs. Jay hired his sister, LaTanya Jackson. And the three of them opened LuLu’s on the first of November, a love and a business grounded in crab cakes and chicken wings and mumbo sauce.
The day I drove by happened to be two days after they opened. I took the crab cake back to the office and opened the box with one eye.
Here in this state I love, I’ve been to countless restaurants and dinners and wedding receptions where people say, “You have to try the crab cakes,” and when I do I feel like Charlie Brown whiffing on the football. It often comes out shaped like a puck, looking like something you’d put under a piece of furniture to avoid scratching up a hardwood floor. They’re fine, I should say, but I’m looking for something deeper in a crab cake.
And that’s when I saw it, the ball of crab meat.
Jay tells me they buy the lump meat from Reliant Fish Company in Jessup, Maryland, a seafood operation that’s been around since the 1930s.
It’s important to know that they serve it at market price. On any given day, that could mean between $16 and $22. It’s not something you eat every day. But for many of us, it’s something you eat when you want to remember.
He and Miketa prepare twenty or so crab cakes each morning, fresh, and they usually sell out. They include a little more salt than I grew up on, and maybe a little more parsley. And their standard cooking method is to flash-fry it to get it to you faster. But you can have it broiled.
That’s the beauty of a good crab cake — or maybe even a good life: When you have the right base, the other stuff is all little tweaks for taste.
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