When JD's Smokehouse departed from Canton Square last year, we were equal parts disappointed and hopeful. On the one hand, JD's had fulfilled a niche market serving reasonably priced barbecue and burgers that could be washed down with a craft brew from its hefty list. It was a go-to for watching the Ravens on Sundays or soaking up suds after bar-hopping. On the other hand, the place had become disorganized, with a menu inconsistent with what was actually being made in the kitchen and a space that had become more dingy than comfortably dive-y.
Though Drew Pumphrey, of local food truck Smoking Swine, ran a pop-up in the Smokehouse kitchen for a brief period of time after JD's departure, it was local chef Jesse Sandlin who finally took over the more permanent reigns of what has been renamed Jokers 'n Thieves (a reference to Bob Dylan).
The new menu at Jokers 'n Thieves (3000 O'Donnell St.,  675-4029, jokersnthievesbaltimore.com) is similar to what made JD's a popular destination, featuring plenty of hearty meats and comfort-food-inspired snacks, but with a more sophisticated flair that reminded us a bit of Sandlin's previous venture in Harbor East, Oliver Speck's.
A noticeable difference in the dishes now offered at this spot is that Sandlin attempts to incorporate Baltimore-based ingredients into the Southern-style menu. The crab cracklins ($4) are a perfect example. Those who know Southern cuisine may be familiar with pork cracklins—basically a fried pork skin that winds up airy, crispy, and chiplike with pork flavor. This is an innovative twist, created through a reduction of crab stock and eventual frying. The Old Bay-dusted snacks are texturally like a thick, aerated potato chip with a distinct seafood flavor. At first bite, we didn't think we were in love, but after a few more, we couldn't stop reaching for the plate.
Because there's a dearth of poutine in Baltimore, we couldn't help but order the country poutine ($12), though we were well aware this was not a traditional preparation. Instead, this riff on the decadent Canadian dish sported golden fries smothered in a thick cheesy sauce of pimento cheese, cream cheese, sharp cheddar, and Worcestershire with plenty of shredded chicken, and topped with tangy melted white cheddar and a healthy amount of finely chopped scallions. The creamy sauce, with a diplike consistency, had a slight heat to it, and the fries held up surprisingly well under the hearty mixture. It was more of a buffalo-chicken-dip-meets-fries dish than a variation on poutine, but it was still a satisfying stomach-filler to start (or end) a night of drinking. (Note: Since our visit, the chicken has been traded out in favor of smoked turkey.)
Off the main plates menu, the 12-hour smoked brisket ($20) was juicy and tender with a proprietary spice rub that enhanced the smokiness of the beef. It is good on its own, but we also, as lovers of stinky cheeses, adored the blue cheese butter that comes on it. However, for those who don't also harbor our adoration, we'd suggest asking for it without—it's one pungent blue cheese butter. The side, slow-cooked Carolina gold rice, mixed with melted Monterey Jack, Parmesan, and cheddar and a bit of crisp diced asparagus (which, since we last visited, has been swapped out for summer squash), is somewhat similar to a risotto, with a creamy texture but rice that is still pleasantly firm.
There was a debate that ensued between a neighboring regular and our server about the maple-chili butter when we ordered the fried chicken ($16). To omit, or not omit, that was the question. We decided to order the dish as it is on the menu, as our server suggested, and we were glad we did. A sizable fried leg and thigh perched atop the golden waffle with just the slightest bit of the debated butter (a sauce, really) drizzled over them was comfort-food heaven. The tender chicken with its crispy coating mingled perfectly with the savory waffle and the sweet butter with its slow chili heat.
With a blend of ground pork belly and shoulder and beef brisket, topped with American cheese, bacon, fried onions, and an overeasy egg, all on a so-called "squishy bun," the all-American burger ($16) is not the dish to order late at night if you're trying to attract Mr. or Ms. Right for Tonight. This is possibly the messiest burger we've ever eaten, and while that can be largely attributed to the squishy bun that struggles to hold up to all of its contents, the pure moisture level from the fried onions, mayo, and egg yolk makes it a difficult sandwich to hold. All of the ingredients are spot on in terms of taste and texture, but this may be better attacked with a fork and knife.
We washed down our meals with a few of the craft beers that are now available on the not-as-extensive-but-still-impressive list, and admired the rustic-meets-shabby-chic interior, with Carolina blue chairs and faux--wood walls, that has replaced the previously drab decor. Is this the same low-cost barbecue joint that had been a Canton Square mainstay for years? Absolutely not. But with its mix of low-cost snacks and elevated Southern-meets-Maryland cuisine, we're hopeful that the new iteration of this spot can be a longstanding comfort-food capital of Canton.