Would you rather be loved or respected? The Mo's group of seafood restaurants and markets gets a lot of the former and not much of the latter. When Anthony Bourdain chose Mo's to represent Baltimore dining on a 2009 "No Reservations" episode, Baltimore foodies were annoyed. Why Mo's, of all places?
Mo's might not be where you'd send someone to form a lasting impression of Maryland seafood. But two locations near the Inner Harbor have outlived a number of highfalutin seafood restaurants that weren't as smart about catering to tourist tastes. Mo's has a hometown following, too. Not many tourists make it out to the long-established Mo's in Glen Burnie and Dundalk.
Mo's restaurants have never been critics' darlings, but for more than 20 years, they've been sure and steady crowd-pleasers. With its enormous menu, Mo's is a haven for the picky eater, even if the sheer volume of menu choices almost guarantees that food won't be prepared with finesse. Mo's real knack is for delivering impressive portions of fare like mammoth lump crab cakes, fried seafood platters and seafood fettuccine Alfredo.
Now, a new Mo's — it's called Mo's Seafood — has opened in Towson. This is where the well-remembered Hersh's Orchard Inn had its long run, and a few follow-up restaurants had their brief ones. The new Mo's carries on the culinary traditions of the locally owned chain, named for its founding chef and owner Mohammed Manocheh.
Mo's Seafood might not win over anyone who harbors doubts about the chain. Some food suffers from bland spicing — which shouldn't really be surprising — but some of it is just prepared badly. Our sympathetic waitress seemed genuinely surprised when we told her our steak was properly cooked to temperature.
The new Mo's could turn out to be popular destination anyway. The Mo's group has clearly invested a lot of money and time in making this a welcoming place for families and friends. It's much more than a seafood restaurant. If Mo's Seafood feels like an upscale sports bar, it's because there are dozens of TVs hung in both the dining room and its adjacent bar. But with its shiny wood floors and handsome bistro furniture, the redone interior feels polished enough to justify the higher-priced menu items.
The real attraction at the new Mo's is the outdoor tiki bar. It's fun, sort of a Margaritaville on the Beltway. Friends were gathered at the bar or dining at picnic tables. Some folks had ordered steamed crabs, while others, like us, were sticking with the regular menu, for better or worse.
A clams casino appetizer looked good, but Mo's version uses melted provolone instead of Parmesan. I can't think why, except that provolone does a better job at obliterating the clams' flavor. It's as though Mo's wants to please seafood lovers who don't really like the taste or texture of seafood.
The crab dip showed up nicely browned and full of the lumps that people like to see, but it didn't have good Chesapeake crab taste. A half-pound of steamed shrimp was brought out piping hot, but the shrimp had been overcooked. So were the mussels in an appetizer of mussels in garlic sauce. The sauce, the color of pistachio ice cream, was gluey with excess flour. Our waitress guessed that's why we didn't finish it. "Too thick, right?" she said.
Even fried food, the kind of thing Mo's should have nailed, isn't reliable. The coating was too thick on onion rings, oysters (part of an oyster trio entree) and shrimp (on a steak-and-seafood entree), and they were all over-fried.
Most of the food is simply innocuous or bland, like an entree of Cajun shrimp — overcooked again — that yielded no heat. A dry mahi-mahi tasted like it hadn't been seasoned at all before it hit the grill. Neither had a tough New York strip.
I did like the other two parts of the oyster trio, an Oysters Rockefeller with firmly baked oysters, silky spinach and a summery bearnaise sauce, and what Mo's calls Oysters Christopher, a Rockefeller variation with lump crab meat and shrimp.
Dessert, we were told, is brought in from various outside vendors. It's the usual run of carrot cake, German chocolate cake and a brownie sundae.
In spite of its uninspiring cuisine, there's still reason to hope Mo's thrives in its new location. I recommend approaching it as a sports bar, though, where you can hang out with friends and family and get some crabs and pub food.
Where: 1528 E. Joppa Road
Hours: Open daily for lunch and dinner
Prices: Appetizers, $5-$12; entrees, $8-$48
Food: ✭ 1/2
Service: ✭✭ 1/2
Atmosphere: ✭✭ 1/2
[Key: Outstanding: ✭✭✭✭ Good: ✭✭✭; Fair or Uneven: ✭✭Poor: ✭>]