Huck's American Craft isn't your typical corner bar. Yes, there are beers on draft (20 to be exact), fruity crush cocktails, a condensed list of decent wines and the requisite TVs scattered around the room.
But there's a big difference. Huck's has a chef, Rob Suk, who is turning out delicious American dishes in the building's brand-new upstairs kitchen.
"I wanted elevated food," said co-owner Charlie Gjerde. "I didn't want it too pretentious."
Gjerde, who partnered with his older brother, James Beard-award-winning chef Spike Gjerde, on several Baltimore restaurant ventures in the 1990s and early 2000s, turned to casual fare after becoming "burned out with fine dining," he said.
After a hiatus, he opened Alexander's Tavern in Fells Point in 2007 and, in 2014, transformed a spot around the corner on Aliceanna Street into Papi's Taco Joint with business partner Carrie Podles.
He's now working on restaurant No. 4, gutting the old McCabe's in Hampden and creating a two-level restaurant with dining and bars on both floors. The new place, Wicked Sisters, is expected to open in August.
Huck's was an accident of sorts.
Gjerde was looking to expand Papi's when he stumbled on the former Elliott's Pour House space in Brewers Hill. It was too close to the original Papi's, so he decided to open a different concept, Huck's, with Podles and his wife, Lori, specializing in popular dishes from around the country.
"I loved the location. I loved the bar," he said. "It's a great community."
Huck's welcomed its first customers last summer but didn't start serving food until January, when the kitchen was completed.
The menu is fun, with appetizers like Wisconsin cheese curds and St. Louis toasted ravioli, sandwiches like a Philly cheesesteak and Martha's Ipswich clam belly, and entrees that include an Amish chicken pot pie and San Francisco cioppino.
There's one caveat. You'll be eating your food at the friendly bar or at a handful of bare-wood tables. Outdoor seating, starting soon, will add 22 seats, Gjerde said.
It's worth the space concession. The kitchen delivers great comfort food.
We sat at a back table in the small dining area just feet from the bar. There's a convivial hum on a weeknight as patrons stop by for a drink or a meal in the bright room with brick and wood-paneled walls and big windows.
I had never indulged in a Frito pie. I'm glad I remedied that gap in my culinary wanderings.
This hot dip is Texas tailgating food at its finest, with crunchy chips, chili con carne and cheddar cheese garnished with pickled peppers, onions and sour cream.
Another starter, fondue, featured a pot of cheddar sauce laced with Omission Lager. It was hot and silky when it arrived with a plate of dippers: soft pretzel bites, pear slices, carrots and celery sticks.
But it cooled off too quickly when the inadequate votive light under the pot kept going out. Our congenial waitress tried to revive it a few times. Still, we enjoyed it.
Our entrees left us feeling satisfied and nurtured. The Hudson Street pot roast was a Sunday dinner for all occasions, with tender hunks of braised Angus beef anchoring roasted carrots, potatoes and parsnips, and finished with an aromatic red-wine rosemary sauce.
Huck's chicken and waffles were impressive and as flavorful as they looked. Crispy boneless chicken patties and fluffy cheddar-and-herb waffles, swabbed with a luxurious white-pepper gravy, were fanned out on a plate with a small dish of huckleberry maple syrup. Put this one on your must-eat list.
The New England bake was a sensuous soup with a seafood broth spiked with Natty Boh. It was composed artistically with shrimp, clams, sausage, Yukon gold potatoes, onions and bright-yellow lemon halves, with sourdough bread for dipping.
Your stomach might tell you to stop eating, but you can't bypass the state fair Twinkie on a stick. The deep-fried snack cake was drizzled with chocolate sauce and powdered with confectioners' sugar for an indulgent treat. We found the huckleberry icing, served on the side for dipping, saccharine and unnecessary.
The Route 66 banana split was a kids' dream dessert for adults. Caramelized bananas were wonderfully smothered with housemade vanilla ice cream, chocolate sauce, candied pecans and swirls of whipped cream peaked with gourmet cherries.
It's hard to believe you're sitting in a neighborhood tavern. Huck's American Craft turns pub grub on its ear with its version of bar food. Grab a table before word gets out.