S & J Crab Ranch opened up this September on a stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue that, give or take a burrito joint or an Asian carryout, is more or less Towson dining in miniature. S & J is definitely a departure from the previous few tenants of its restaurant space — Jade East, Olive & Sesame and most recently, Osaka Asian Fusion. S & J also stands out from its neighbors. It's got something different — steamed crabs.
The S in S & J Crab Ranch is Steve Recher, owner of Towson's successful Recher Theatre, and the J is James Kahn, a Baltimore County native with 30-some years' experience in the restaurant business, much of it from the supply side. Kahn, the restaurant's day-to-day operator, says he's tapped into a steady supply of good, heavy crabs. This late in the season, we didn't order crabs, though we saw them on a few other tables. They looked like good specimens, and it's good just to know that crabs have come to Towson Circle.
Actually, steamed crabs share top billing at S & J with "Southern classics" like barbecue chicken, Texas-style brisket, and ribs, which are likewise scarce on inner Towson menus. This is the food we tried at S & J, along with a few all-American tavern items.
S & J isn't out to revolutionize dining; it simply wants to give people decent food in a comfortable room at reasonable prices. On the whole, S & J was on mission on the evening we visited. Like myriad other restaurants, it could stand to tighten some screws. Right now, there are a few semi-ambitious menu items that the kitchen can't dependably execute but more dishes that it's handling just fine. Kahn himself was working the floor, greeting new tables and offering recommendations. An accommodating staff follows his friendly lead.
Pulled-pork nachos, served on multicolored tortilla chips and drizzled with tangy house-made barbecue sauce, are attractively presented and generously portioned, a standout appetizer diners would order time after time. The crab mac-and-cheese is not as impressive. Served in a soup bowl, it looks bland, without any of the broiled, brown-bubbly state that makes diners so happy. It tastes better than it looks but could use some sharpness and spice; even a dash of cayenne would make a big difference.
Southwestern grilled oysters, topped with pico de gallo, are a nice try at something different, but the result is half-hearted. The pico de gallo wants some more lime and cilantro, and too much cheese and tomatoes overwhelm the oysters' flavor. They're finished tentatively, too. This happened again with a potato-encrusted grouper entree. The potatoes never crisped up, and the fish, although firm and flaky, was under-seasoned.
S & J does much better when it moves away from pub grub and fancy dishes and settles into its Southern-classics groove. We spotted some friends having dinner at the bar before their gig at the Recher Theatre. They had ordered an appetizer of braised short ribs that looked better than any of our appetizers. We had a taste. They were rich and smoky, tender and tangy, just delicious.
On the entree menu, S & J serves baby back ribs and St. Louis style ribs. Baby back ribs are the rage these days, but spare ribs have good fatty flavor. St. Louis style refers less to a particular preparation than its distinctive square cut. S & J dry-rubs its St. Louis ribs; diners who want more flavor than the rub provides can squirt on their choice of four homemade barbecue sauces. The tender Texas-style brisket, with good smoky flavor, is another good option from the Southern platters.
Side dishes like french fries, cole slaw and garlic mashed potatoes are inoffensive pub fare. After a while, you start wishing the kitchen would sneak some bacon grease into your food.
Desserts are down-home favorites like fruit pies, bread pudding and peach cobbler. They're homemade, good tasting and generous.
The steamed crabs alone make S & J a welcome newcomer to the Towson dining scene. Towson's tastes are unpredictable, though. Perfectly reasonable restaurants vanish overnight, and places you wouldn't send your in-laws to have been around since dirt was invented.
The new owners have created a handsome series of well-lit wood-and-brick dining spaces, accented with burnt oranges and deep reds, and they've thrown in a good-looking bar as a bonus. S & J also offers a raw bar, a selection of grilled cheese sandwiches and a children's menu.
If you approach S & J as an friendly hangout or as family crab house with good barbecue, you'll have a good time of it.
S & J Crab Ranch
Where: 2 W. Pennsylvania Ave., Towson
Contact: 410-821-6789, http://www.sjcrabranch.com
Hours: Open daily for lunch and dinner
Prices: Appetizers, $7-$11; entrees, $17-$24
[Key: Outstanding:✭✭✭✭ ; Good:✭✭✭; Fair or Uneven: ✭✭✭; Poor: ✭]