A Cool, Wry Place
Neighborhood Pub Delivers Up Relaxed, Hearty Comfort Food
This location is closed
A kind of deadpan laced with naughtiness is a sense of humor that’s particular to Baltimore. You’re going about your business when, all of a sudden, someone starts messing with you. This humor flourishes on city buses, in bank lines, and in particular at musty old joints like Jimmy O’Donnell’s Pub (4528 Harford Road,  426-8700). Newcomers walk in and, before they know it, the waitress--let’s properly call her a barmaid--has hurled a few kind insults their way and some guy in a yellow-white T-shirt, who says he’s trying to buy the place and already has a proprietary air about him, is demanding to know what they’re going to order. Later on, a nice elderly couple from a neighboring table stops by to see how one of these newcomers is managing with his big special platter of meat.
Jimmy O’Donnell’s is friendly and completely unironic. There’s nothing cute about it; it has a lived-in, lopsided, just north of shabby look that compels a relaxed attitude. In the throes of a heat wave, it’s dark and cool, with the outside world sealed off by a fake stone front. White folks and black folks come here for groaning portions of simple food, and for the vanishing pleasure of smoking at their tables in between courses.
The printed menu promises home cooking along with longish waits--true on both counts. The food is persuasively homemade, if not necessarily always by the world’s best home cook. Regulars know about the weekly specials--Sundays for ribs, Mondays for burgers, Tuesdays for shrimp, etc. And they keep an eye out for the nightly specials, too, something like that attention-getting three-animal platter ($16.95), which brought together a chicken breast, a New York strip, and baby-back ribs--along with a choice of sides: plenty of starch choices, but corn on the cob and broccoli, too. Only the meaty ribs, coated with a mild honey barbecue sauce, plenty succulent, would be worth getting on their own. The chicken breast and steak wanted some more seasoning and tenderizing attention.
Other specials this night included sandwiches of andouille sausage and homemade chicken salad, which T-shirt man talked up and the barmaid brought out samples of. This was chunky, convincingly fresh, and seasoned liberally with tarragon. Just as good is O’Donnell’s chunky shrimp salad sandwich ($8.95), which is said to be laced with hazelnut liqueur but tastes instead--and not unpleasurably--of butter. Sandwiches at O’Donnell’s are served--again, without a glimmer or irony--with a bag of potato chips laid on top. A club sandwich ($6.95) impresses with generous fillings of perfectly cooked bacon and especially with thick slices of fresh turkey that look and taste as though they’ve been sliced from a bird roasted on premises. The addition to the club of waxy orange American cheese comes across as a bit of weirdness; in fact, it’s not mentioned on the menu’s description.
Burgers were special this evening, and O’Donnell’s $5.95 deal yields an eight-ounce, hand-formed patty cooked as ordered to a ruby rareness and inserted with slices of tomato into a toasted roll, served with the house’s salt-deprived fries and a pint of cold beer. Perhaps a little more salt would wake up the meat’s flavors, but the total package holds up to the city’s other Monday-night burger specials.
Monday night meant that the kitchen was accountably out of a few tempting menu items, chiefly crab cakes. O’Donnell’s sandwich and platter are priced competitively ($11.95 and $13.95) with the versions of Harford Road’s better-known pub, Koco’s. Whether they’re as good as Koco’s is a question for another day.
No crabmeat meant an appetizer of seafood potato skins ($8.95) were given a compensatory shrimp, but they really needed the silky, greasy presence of crab to give them some life--that and some more heat from the broiler to melt the cheddar cheese. More than making up for these, though, was a plate of O’Donnell’s superb garlic-sauced wings. Perfect wings these were, with crisp skin, unmysterious meat, and a tongue-tingling snap from the garlic sauce. (Wednesdays are 30-cents-each wings night at O’Donnell’s.)
Urgency isn’t a word anyone would associate with O’Donnell’s. What should have been the meal’s last 10 minutes (dessert and the bringing of the check) took an hour. The best spin on this is that O’Donnell’s wants to keep its patrons around, for some more beers and laughs.