Restaurant review: Koco's, the quintessential neighborhood pub

Sociologists looking for the quintessential neighborhood pub would be smart to park themselves at Koco's.

This family-owned tavern in Lauraville not only serves up good local fare — excellent crab cakes and juicy wings — it is also embedded in this Northeast Baltimore community.

As you walk in, the door signs tell customers not to park "above the alley," the parking area on a side street, set aside by custom for residents of nearby houses.

Once inside, you walk past a kid's corner, an area stuffed with games and teeming, the night we were there, with neighborhood youngsters. As the kids rollicked, their mothers sat at a nearby table enjoying adult conversation and freshly prepared supper. It felt like a family gathering at grandma's.

The star of Koco's menu was the broiled crab cake. It was superb — plump, moist and showing few signs of seasoning. The crab flavor dominated. It, like many items on the menu, is the work of Joanna Kocovinos, who along with her daughter, Marcella Knight, runs the pub.

Kocovinos, I was told, began practicing her crab cake art some years ago at the old Pump Room, a restaurant at North Avenue and Howard Street, an establishment that has since become Joe Squared Pizza. The Pump Room was known for its crabs, and the crab cake at Koco's continues the tradition of a well-handled crustacean.

The platter ($22.99) paired a large, charred crab cake with an equally impressive serving of Caesar salad, brimming with crispy pieces of romaine, fat croutons and topped with a tangy dressing.

Other winners were a trio of appetizers, or as I dubbed them, the "fried apps." The chicken tenders ($7.99) were ribbons of white meat that had been breaded and fried, and were served with a pleasing, house-made honey mustard sauce.

The onion rings ($6.99) were sizzling and almost but not quite as good as those once served at Burke's, the now-closed downtown restaurant that was the gold standard for onion rings in Baltimore. The poppers ($5.99) a marriage of jalapeno peppers and cream cheese, were hot from the fryer. Mild in flavor, they were accompanied by the best sauce of the night, a raspberry hot sauce.

The moist chicken wings ($8.99) also offered a choice of that winning raspberry sauce. Instead I picked the Buffalo sauce, which was fine, but I should have gone with the raspberry. The fried shrimp platter ($13.99) was plentiful and filling but nothing exceptional.

Our foursome washed down this fried fare with pints of Yuengling ($3.25), glasses of chardonnay ($5) and a bottle of Flying Dog ($4.25).

Service was prompt. Our food arrived at the table hot — always a major plus. Cold food can ruin a kitchen's best efforts. The only slip-up was when my son asked for bottle of Dogfish Head beer and was served an ale from Flying Dog Brewery. Somebody got their dogs crossed.

Koco's does not do dessert, but they did serve a complimentary plate of Berger cookies, a Baltimore favorite. I am not an aficionado of Berger cookies, but my son and his girlfriend are. They said these cookies were fresh; they could tell by the supple frosting. I have to bow to their judgment. They were born here and grew up eating these cookies.

The setting at Koco's Pub — bar at one end, dining tables in the middle, kids' tables at the other end — is not fancy. Nor is the fare. But the crab cakes are genuine, the kitchen is deft and the service is genial. They welcome visitors, so long as you don't park in front of a neighbor's house.

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Koco's Pub

Where: 4301 Harford Road, Baltimore

Contact: 410-426-3519, kocospub.com

Open: noon-10 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; noon-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday

Credit Cards: All major

Appetizers: $3.99-$13.99

Entrees: $6.99-$18.99 (Crab cakes are market price)

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Service: ¿¿1/2

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