Plug Ugly’s Publick House
Friendly Canton spot needs to spice things up
Published: July 31, 2012
Plug Ugly’s Publick House
2908 O’Donnell St,  563-8459, pluguglyspub.com
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“Do you think they’ll let Catholics in?” a friend asked when I invited him to dinner at Plug Ugly’s Publick House. He was joking, of course. But when you name your pub after an 1850s political mob associated with the Know Nothings, anti-Papist leanings, and violent intimidation, well, there could be questions.
As it turns out, Plug Ugly’s isn’t mean-spirited or even rowdy. Midweek finds the place packed with an array of dating couples, parents with teenage children, happy-hour denizens, and several groups of women having a night out. Getting a table on the pub’s second floor feels like a small coup, though on a cooler night, one imagines the deck would be the go-to spot.
The rough name belies the staff too, with their cheery greetings and an unflagging enthusiasm for Plug Ugly’s menu, both edible and potable. When a server willingly runs down a substantial draft list by memory several times over the course of the evening, you know you are in a good spot for a pint. Reasonable prices ($5 for Evolution Lot No. 3 and Heavy Seas Loose Cannon and $6 for Flying Dog Raging Bitch, for example) don’t hurt either. Bars on both levels offer the full range of drafts, so servers don’t have to go running up and down the stairs for a particular pull, though you get the impression that they’d be happy to.
If only Plug Ugly’s food lived up to the rest of the Plug Ugly’s experience. While the menu itself is suitably casual and seafood-inflected for a classic Baltimore pub, the kitchen consistently errs on the side of bland. (Perhaps this is why so many diners here nosh on burgers.) The crab and corn fritters ($10) that a server enthusiastically recommends (over lobster hush puppies, another appetizer choice)? Light in texture for being deep fried, but essentially flavorless. The seafood club, a monstrous triple-decker sandwich combo of crabcake, shrimp salad, and BLT? Clearly constructed of fresh, quality ingredients and mercifully not overdressed, but without any recognizable seasoning—no Old Bay, no dry mustard in the crabcake, not even salt and pepper. The sandwich feels like Cinderella going to the ball in clogs rather than glass slippers, a drag on something essentially quite lovely.
Aside from traditional pub-menu staples like chicken wings, Cobb salad, and sandwiches (seared tuna, roast beef, chicken salad, roast turkey), Plug Ugly’s serves steaks, fish entrees, and pastas and also boasts a small raw bar. Kudos to the pub for making their own sausage, a garlicky, sweet kielbasa-style link that shows up in pasta with chicken, prosciutto, and vodka cream sauce ($18).
Soups are also homemade, and in a twist, the kitchen offers “half and half,” a cup or bowl of half Maryland crab soup and half cream of crab ($6 for a cup). I’ll be the first to admit it sounds weird, but I’ll also ’fess up that I kind of liked it. The mild tomato-based crab broth, with its bits of corn and green beans, floats underneath the heavier, but not pasty, cream version. Both soups have a good amount of crab, and the combination works whether you stir the two soups together or attempt to eat them in layered fashion.
Another bright spot on the menu is the Plug Ugly Steam Pot: your choice of three different pots of seafood steamed Maryland style, in Old Bay broth; New England style, with lobster, clams, roasted garlic, and Sam Adams broth ($25); or Cajun, complete with crawfish, oysters, and a Creole broth. If you order one of these, “you have to work for it,” advises a server, but if you find pleasure in cracking open snow-crab shells and digging lobster meat out of a tiger-orange tail, you will be satisfied, even if the broth itself could use a little oomph. The accompanying corn tastes sweet, not starchy, and suggests that the cob isn’t just a colorful addition to the pot. Better bread would be a nice touch, though.
Formerly the home of Helen’s Garden, Plug Ugly’s looks like a lot of other Baltimore pubs: exposed brick, hardwood floors, two-story dining (plus decks), with street views of the neighborhood—in this case, Canton—below. This is not necessarily a bad thing. A friendly, familiar, low-key option for eating and drinking can be a welcome addition to any neighborhood. But if Plug Ugly’s wants to compete with other Canton spots, it’s going to have to kick it up a notch or else become just a very pleasant place to have a pint.
Plug Ugly’s serves lunch and dinner seven days.
> Email Mary K. Zajac