When we started going to rock shows
at bars, the food was an afterthought at best. Probably just chips or peanuts, a burger if we were lucky. Compared to this, eating at the Crown (1910 N. Charles St.,  625-4848,
) is downright futuristic, like walking into the first scene of
: a glorious Asian-infused mixture of global, grimy goodness. Like the music and art it features-and like Baltimore's arts scene in general-the Crown's cuisine is defined by eclecticism and an anything-goes attitude.
The bar (which shares a kitchen and menu with the neighboring Gold Bar), managed by Brendan Sullivan from the band Weekends, can seem like an intimidatingly underground spot for dinner. Most people eat there after they've been drinking, late at night when it's crowded and there's nowhere to sit and it's dark and the music is loud and the red-and-black decor and drunken denizens are all enough to make it seem like a Hieronymus Bosch scene. The late-night trip to the Crown is well-warranted, though: A drunken kimchi burger or scallion pancake can soak up booze like nothing else in the neighborhood and provide the perfect accompaniment to a set of noisy experimental music. And goddamn kimchi fries? Holy shit! Why did it take so fucking long to figure out you can put kimchi on anything and that when you are drunk or high, it will be a revelation?
The thing is, the food is great even if you aren't drunk and if the only music playing is some French crooning or soft electronica. In fact, it's much better. We showed up for dinner on different nights at about 7 p.m. and could sit anywhere we pleased, on one of the big couches, at the bar, or at one of the small tables.
First, about that kimchi burger ($9). The regular burger is a dollar less, but the fermented veggies and the dollop of spicy mayo are well worth it. We recommend upgrading even more with (improbably) a side of kimchi ($2), because both the burger and the K-fries ($6)-garlic fries with kimchi, spicy mayo, and jalapenos-could use more kimchi. Still, this is bar food at its best, flavorful, filling, and greasy. For something slightly more traditional, order the kimchi rice ($7), served with either veggies, tofu, chicken, bulgogi ($3 apiece), or an egg ($1). The egg adds a bit of wet yolk to the dry, crunchy tang of the rice, and the slight sweetness of the bulgogi is also a nice touch, adding a bit of its own chewy texture.
But traditional is really not the way to go here (for that, go to nearby Nam Kang or Be-One or Jong Kak). The blend of culinary styles makes the Crown's menu so enjoyable: Kimchi everything, tacos, pho, dumplings, noodle bowls, and pancakes all add up to something spectacular. None of it is quite as good as it would be, perhaps, in a restaurant solely dedicated to a single cuisine. The beef pho ($9), for instance, has a slightly greasy broth that seems to cling to your teeth; it's not as good as Mekong Delta's, but it has the aromatic kick one expects from the Vietnamese soup and is much improved with a beer, which is unavailable at Mekong. The tacos, too, may not be on par with Tortilleria Sinaloa, but they're damn good. And you can't beat Taco Tuesday: two tacos (fillings vary) on corn tortillas with a Tecate beer for $10 ($8 without the beer-but why would you?).
Still, Asian comfort food is the main draw. The noodle bowl ($8) may be the best thing on the Crown's menu. The beautiful orange broth, thick with udon noodles, jalapenos, vegetables, and beef (if you order it), arrives steaming in a giant metal bowl. The broth is like a mixture of Korean jjigae-an extremely savory mix of anchovy stock and red-pepper paste-and Thai galanga soup with lemongrass, kaffir lime, and coconut milk. But after the thick, doughy noodles have soaked in the spices, the noodle bowl surpasses both soups individually.
The Korean pancakes (one for $4, three for $10) are also out of this world. You can get either scallions or kimchi chopped up, mixed in a pancake batter, and fried in thin cakes that are just barely crispy on the outside and light and fluffy inside. They are especially good with the minty, garlicky chutney that comes with the sweet-potato chips ($5), but, really, their spongy texture is great for scooping up those last few noodles in your bowl and then sopping up the juice.
The Crown really has bar food figured out: Don't worry about nationality or provenance but about fillingness, flavor, and price instead. Let the best of everything blend together to create an amalgamation of goodness, like what the arts scene is serving.
The Charles North neighborhood contains Baltimore's Koreatown and part of Station North, so perhaps it was inevitable that venues like the Crown and the Gold Bar would become strange hybrids where you can see an experimental band or a hip-hop show while scarfing down beef pho or a kimchi burger. If this is the future of bar food, save us a seat.
The Crown is open every day from 5 p.m. to 2 a.m.