If the first three pillars of restaurant success are location, next up would be the kitchen, with service following in short order. If the location happens to be The Block — Baltimore's notorious XXX district — the choice of a name might take on special significance, too.
Crazy John's is nestled between a strip club called Lust and a chicken place that sells liquor. It's a gaudy, bustling, short-order haunt popular among city employees who dress up for work and those whose work involves undressing. The place is an intersection of officialdom and the demimonde. And it might be better than you'd expect.
A smiling attendant leans on the counter. "What can I getcha, hon?" Asked if they serve Nathan's hotdogs, she answers, "You mean 'all-beef'?" That sounds good enough: one with mustard, one with the works ($2.25 each). A couple minutes later, the dogs are delivered in foil lined wrap.
Across the aisle at the grill is the show. Three people are working like plate spinners in a stiff wind. One guy in particular, moving always at just under a run, flits back and forth along the grill. It's not always clear what's getting accomplished, but it's fun to watch.
When our total is announced, even the main grill guy is surprised. He checks the ticket. There's a wrap on there that we didn't order. He strikes it. Whew.
12:38 p.m. We collect our entrees. In the back are two empty dining rooms, one downstairs, one up. The loft offers a clear view of the proceedings below: the hubbub, the crowd, the guys carrying what looks like a portable welder down to the basement. On the way to either dining area, we pass another guy sitting in a booth offering lottery tickets. Hey, win back the price of your meal.
A Philly cheese steak expert is on hand, but his sensitivities aren't needed. Crazy John's doesn't advertise a Philly cheese steak and doesn't serve one. You can get John's with bacon or other good things, but it's still a straight cheese steak, no connection to the City of Brotherly Love. And it is not bad — certainly not for $5.75.
Crazy John's claims the cheese steak as its signature sandwich among the two dozen subs listed on its menu. Its juicy chopped meat and mild seasoning offer a nice tang with a hint of pepper. It tastes as if it were designed to addict. It's an easy, not-too-sloppy sandwich with a soft, slightly chewy bread that could become a go-to pick on those days when you are in a hurry to grab something substantial and run back to your desk … or whatever surface you happen to work at.
The all-beef dogs are plump, reddish and not about to get lost in the bun. The "everything" has a thick salsa texture and taste.
The wings in the Wing Zings and fries order ($6.55) were plain fried wings, no sauce, no seasoning, but tender and moist. The fries shouldn't disappoint but won't wow you either. It's a no-frills, workingperson's fare. Same with the rest of the menu, which includes breakfast served all day.
12:53 p.m. Just about finished and watching the customers lined up along the counters. Crazy John's looks busier now than when we entered.
12:57 p.m. More customers are pushing in as we push out. For well under $10, Crazy John's can leave you feeling full. But if you leave a bit stuffed, you're quickly reminded, as you step outside and see the surrounding businesses, that taking on too many calories isn't the only sin in the book. Indeed, you can do a lot worse than Crazy John's.
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Where: 410 E. Baltimore St.
Lunch hours (same menu): 24 hours a day
Lunch entrees: $3.20-$6.75
[Key: Outstanding: ✭✭✭✭ Good: ✭✭✭ Fair or Uneven: ✭✭ Poor: ✭]
Dining time 32 minutes