Lauraville neighborhood institution does the homey local staples right
Published: August 3, 2011
Before Hamilton Tavern. Before Clementine. Before the Chameleon, the Red Canoe, Zeke’s, and the Safeway. Before many Baltimoreans could even pinpoint where Lauraville was, there was Koco’s Pub, the Kocovino family’s neighborhood go-to on Harford Road. (The restaurant is closed for a week starting Aug. 13 for summer vacation.)
Twenty-six years after its opening, Koco’s is clearly still a neighborhood joint (though Lauraville is clearly not the same neighborhood it was in 1985), and a small sign near the entrance explains that Koco’s has gotten more popular recently and that its small kitchen may take longer to produce meals (if you’re a “Starvin’ Marvin,” the sign advises, order apps—problem solved!). As much as foodies (myself included) thrill at the charcuterie, gourmet burgers, and farm-to-table offerings available on Harford Road, it’s comforting to know that the classic pub food Koco’s offers can still compete and hold its own, even if it’s served on paper plates or in plastic baskets.
Mind you, the interior space at Koco’s can feel like you’ve stumbled into somebody’s colorful club basement. Koco’s orange-and blue-painted front of the house is home to the bar, the jukebox, and fruit and Lotto machines. The back is decidedly more family friendly. A collage of kid photos hangs above a great tumble of toys in one back corner, and parrot art, Orioles paraphernalia, and stylized paintings of chefs, as well as many televisions, cover the screaming yellow and blue walls. A cold case sits in front of the door to the kitchen, and next to the bar, one side of a chalkboard advertises a raffle to benefit Koco’s cook, “Mr. James” Banks; the other side lists this month’s customers’ birthdays (if you see Brian, Shirl, Linda, or Tootie, wish them well). Tables are inches apart, making it easy to see what everyone is ordering: crab cakes ($20.99/market price for a sandwich).
Sometimes there are two crab cake orders on the table. Smart folks share one cake because they are huge, an unadvertised 11 ounces (that’s nearly three-quarters of a pound). They are also, as every other crab item on the menu, bulging with lump crab—no stringy bits here. The seasoning is mild, a little underwhelming even, but the meat is fresh, and there’s very little evidence of filler. It’s a classic rendition, and a good one at that.
That said, the crab soup ($4 cup/market price) is outstanding, not only for its generous amount of crab (equal at least to the amount of vegetables), but for its fragrant tomato-based broth. Aside from Old Bay, the spices are kept secret, according to a server, but there’s something unmistakably aromatic in the mix—allspice, maybe? Whatever it is, it works. Crab dip ($13.99) is what it should be, a melting amalgam of cheddar, cream cheese, and crab served with pita-like flatbread, though honestly, the appeal of this dish has long eluded me. Why hide good lump meat in an overrich cheese sauce? Koco’s does the rest of its pub food uncommonly well. While the menu doesn’t brag about the beef origins for the Kocoburger ($10.99), it’s a really tasty burger, cooked accurately to order and slathered with the cheese of your choice plus a slice of ham. It’s worth noting, too, that the tomatoes on the burger, the crab cake, and the shrimp salad ($13.99), aggressively spicy and all the better for it, were beautifully ripe. This should be a given during Maryland’s midsummer, but remarkably often isn’t the case. If you like fish and chips ($12.99), by all means order them here. The cod fillets are sliced into batons and deep fried to crunching point without sacrificing the moist interior flesh, a very nice foil for a pint of Flying Dog Doggie Style Pale Ale, one of a very limited number of beers on tap.
There are no desserts to order at Koco’s (due to space and storage constraints, reported a server), but the staff will offer Berger cookies on the house. If that ain’t Baltimore, hon, I don’t know what is.
Koco’s is open Tuesday-Saturday for lunch and dinner.
> Email Mary K. Zajac