Girls in the 'Hoods
Dropping by a Couple of Joints Where Everybody Knows Your Name
I always feel a little bit funny walking into what is obviously a neighborhood joint when I'm not, like, from the neighborhood. But, hey, it's my job. C.C. and I dropped in on a couple of them recently, one in Canton and one in Federal Hill. We felt a bit more at home in the east-side place, where we joined the regulars in singing along with Sinatra on the sound system. In Federal Hill, people were busy talking money and boats, which left us out, as we have little of the former and none of the latter.
Canton Station (1028 S. Conkling St.,  327-2004) has a loud, happy bar and, up a few steps, a small and cozy dining room done up in greens and maroon and warm wood. Photos of trains and old Baltimore line the walls. C.C. and I both liked the look and feel of the place, but we were of two minds about the food.
What C.C. liked: the soup of the day, beef barley ($2.25 for a cup), a thick, obviously homemade mix of carrots, corn, peas, beans, onions, tender barley, and tiny, lean morsels of beef. Her entrée, angel-hair pasta with spinach and shrimp ($11.95). The five butterflied shrimp were well-cooked, the spinach was fresh, and a judicious amount of sun-dried tomato lent the simple sauce of olive oil, onion, and garlic an appealing sweetness. And her closing tiramisu ($4.50), a light and spongy Americanized version of the Italian classic.
What Susan didn't like: the Maryland crab soup ($3.25/cup), brick red, dominated by tomato, with mushy vegetables and a bit of mushy crab tossed on top. The crab-cake sandwich (market price, $9.95 that night), small, mealy in spots, dry in others, no lump meat, little flavor, served with waffle fries I might have enjoyed had they not been cut so thickly. Apple pie ($3.95), soggy, too sweet, and dusted, for some reason, with cocoa.
Our foray to Porter's Pub (1032 Riverside Ave.,  539-1999) produced more of a culinary consensus. We liked the ambiance as well. ("Reminds me of Williamsburg," my honey whispered.) The bar features a tin ceiling and some high tables. Cherry woods, beautifully framed and matted photos, and stained-glass panels give the little dining room some warmth, as does the faded Persian carpet. Our window-side table allowed us to overlook a corner of Federal Hill--recently rehabbed homes, pretty as pictures, and rowhouses in mid-restoration.
Crab soup wasn't on the menu, but for purposes of soup comparison I ordered the spicy black bean ($3.25/cup). A semi-purée of beans with a dollop of sour cream in the center, the soup came with a bit of a kick to it, and a glossy sheen, but I didn't taste any of the sherry or ham flavor I prefer in a black-bean soup. Call this a chaste version.
C.C.'s appetizer choice, crab-and-artichoke dip ($8.50), was a meal in itself, and we took half of it home (where it reheated very nicely the next day, to the detriment of our arteries). Artfully served in an herbed French boule, the dip was heavy with crab and hunks of artichoke, topped with lots of cheddar. I think I detected a touch of sherry as well, but maybe I just had sherry on the brain.
It was a Monday night, which at Porter's means half-price burgers (though our distracted server didn't mention it; we only found out when we got the bill). C.C. went with a Swiss-cheese burger ($6.95): half a pound of good quality beef, lean and flavorful, cooked as ordered. She also liked the sweet, fresh coleslaw, but only a mother potato could love the pathetic fries. Pale, lifeless, and undercooked, they gained nothing from their dusting of Old Bay.
Again for purposes of comparison, I ordered the crab-cake sandwich (market price, $14.95 on our visit), which came with the pleasing slaw and appalling fries. Albeit pricey, the cake was of good size, with little filler. The crab itself was largely lump and had old-time Old Bay flavor--proving, perhaps, that you get what you pay for.
Three specials were available that night--jerk grouper, a 12-ounce rib-eye steak, and twin crab cakes--but all were in the $20 price range. I tried to eyeball them, but folks around us were sticking to staples like buffalo wings ($5.95), sandwiches ($6.95-$8.95), and the half-price burgers.
Desserts, our server regretfully informed us, had not been delivered that day, so C.C. and I passed up a choice of vanilla or chocolate ice cream and sipped coffee while dusk descended on one of Baltimore's more picturesque neighborhoods.