Look What They've Done to My Dive, Ma
Koco's Turns to Coconut Culture
We'd driven by Koco's Pub (4301 Harford Road,  426-3519) for years before we got the nerve to go in. It was a drizzly autumn evening. We were tired and hungry. We had just driven past Koco's again.
"You wanna go back there?" I said. "Grab some dinner?"
"You think?" C.C. said. She scowled at the Formstone exterior through the rearview mirror. "Looks kind of grubby."
"They're supposed to have a great crab cake," I said, rather wistfully.
And a pretty great crab cake it was, once we got past the general dinginess of the place. Koco's was one long bar, two pool tables, a chalkboard menu, and a doorway open to the kitchen in the back. Three or four plastic-covered tables sat in the middle of the room, but you got the feeling they were an afterthought. Everywhere you looked, you saw a TV. There were no windows, except the round one in the front with the name KOCO'S buzzing in orange neon.
The food was another matter entirely. The crab cake alone made returning worthwhile. Our server told us people came from as far as North Carolina for it, and after a taste we believed her. We loved the sinus-clearing shrimp salad, the juicy New York strip (a challenge to dissect with plastic cutlery), and the Kocoburger, 8 ounces of beef topped with ham, bacon, and cheese, a cholesterol junkie's dream. There wasn't anything green in sight, except maybe a small plastic cup of cole slaw. It was our kind of place, and except for a few guys at the bar, we were usually the only ones in it.
Fast-forward to a couple of months ago. C.C. and I were traveling Harford Road when we nearly ran off the road: Koco's had been painted yellowcanary yellowwith purple trim. This called for a more thorough investigation, of course, so we returned later that evening. The formerly deserted eatery was packed. There were more tables, but not one was empty. Dazed, we stumbled toward the bar, looking in vain for the chalkboard menu. Couldn't find it. But we did find newly painted peach walls, arched glass-block windows, and adare I say it?yuppie crowd at the bar. A bartender offered us menusprinted menus! And place mats. We began to fear the worst.
If you haven't visited the transformed Koco's yet, here's the scoop: The new bartender is the owner's daughter, and her husband is the guy who operated Fins, the Jimmy Buffet-theme bistro in Canton that was replaced by Geckos. Fins, if you remember, was a whimsical sort of place with a beach-party motif. It's hardly the image I'd have married with Koco's.
Here's what it looks like foodwise: Coconut shrimp ($6.95) and Parrothead Chicken (jerk-chicken strips, $6.95) beside beer-battered onion rings ($4.50) and fried mozzarella ($4.95). The Key West club sandwich (shrimp salad, turkey, ham, bacon, lettuce, and tomato; $8.95) beside the Kocoburger ($6.95). Raspberry-jalapeño Wing-Dings (12 for $5.95) next to the jumbo-lump crab cake ($11.95 sandwich, $13.99 platter with fries and slaw). And get thissalads: garden ($4.95), Caesar ($4.95), Greek ($6.95).
The crab cake is as splendid as ever, and on Thursdays after 7 P.M. you can get the platter for a pittance ($9.99, eat-in only). You can only order one, but I doubt you could handle two of these softball-sized beauties, especially if you've begun your culinary expedition with a bowl of Koco's homemade soup (priced daily) or those delectable coconut shrimp. For openers, we've also enjoyed the creamy crab dip ($8.95), nicely seasoned and blended with cheese, and a half-pound of spicy, firm steamed shrimp served with diced onions and red potatoes ($7.95).
Fins' Killer Shrimp ($8.95), a serving of large shrimp drowned in a spicy red sauce, proved less incendiary than the shrimp-salad sandwich ($8.95), which really raised a sweat. I tried the baby back ribs platter ($9.95), a large half-rack basted with a sweet Jamaican sauce and char-grilled. Meaty and lean. But nothing could woo C.C. away from her crab cake, which was lightly fried and not too spicy. And thankfully, it had only enough filler to hold it together.
"Have some," she insisted.
I declined the offer.
"Just a taste," she said. "So you can see how good it is. Come on." On the plastic forknot everything has changedshe held out a lump the size of a quarter.
I swallowed, and our eyes met. It was an intimate moment, but no one was watching. Too much distraction from the multiple TVs. This, I decided, is a perfect moment: sharing the perfect crab cake with the one I love.
Open 1-11 P.M. Sunday, 11 A.M.-11 P.M. Monday through Thursday, 11 A.M.-midnight Friday and Saturday.