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In Towson, S & J Crab Ranch has new chef and extra Southwestern flavor

Changes are afoot at the S&J Crab Ranch.

Over the summer, the "J" in the equation — owner James Kahn — bought out his partner, Steve Recher. Kahn installed Chef Adam Sanchez in the kitchen of the 3-year-old Towson eatery. And Sanchez revamped the menu to better showcase his New Mexico roots.

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The crabs are still there, of course, and so is the barbecue that's been a mainstay since the restaurant opened. But with some streamlining and recipe tweaking, plus the addition of Southwestern favorites, S&J's new menu shows well. Paired with service that is attentive, if not always polished, the restaurant's new incarnation is off to a good start.

Scene & Decor When we arrived at S&J just before 7 on a Thursday night, we were surprised to find only a few tables occupied and not a single drinker posted at the bar. A second dining room was completely empty. Fortunately, the small crowd was not a sign that the food was no good. It was just a quiet night.

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The space was charming enough, with an exposed brick wall and a handful of Western-themed signs and artwork, but its real personality was piping through the speakers. A steady stream of upbeat, new country hits signaled that Kahn and company are serious about the "ranch" part of the restaurant's name.

Appetizers About half our fellow diners were there for the crabs — we spied big crab-filled trays being shuttled to a few lucky people — and we got our own crab fix with an appetizer of crab mac and cheese ($15 for a large).

With big chunks of crab and a well-seasoned, seriously creamy sauce, the dish was rich and appealing. It was filling enough, though, that it might work better as an entree than as an appetizer, maybe paired with a side salad to cut the intensity of the sauce. Still, we can't complain about a dish that's just so good we couldn't stop eating it.

Entrees Kahn brags that his new chef is a "specialist in smoking meats" and the brisket sandwich ($12.99) is a good example of that expertise. Served on a glossy brioche roll, the meat was just slightly smoky — no heavy hand here — and impressively moist. Brisket is often too dry for our taste; S&J's version was some of the juiciest we've tried.

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The sandwich arrived without condiments but upon request, our waiter quickly brought us a squeeze bottle filled with house-made barbecue sauce. The tomato-based sauce was sweet and just a little spicy, a good match for the brisket, which was flavorful on its own.

On the side, we opted for sweet potato fries (75 cents extra), which were also nicely seasoned and crispy, rather than floppy.

The tamale pie ($16.99) was a fun nod to Sanchez's native state. A crust of masa (dough made from hominy) cracked open to reveal ground beef, seasoned with spices and fragrant with cumin, and mixed with peppers and black beans. Scooped up with a spoon, or with the multicolored chips served on the side, the pie packed a ton of flavor into each bite.

Drinks Though the bar menu held few surprises, a couple of Heinekens ($5) and Natty Bohs ($2.50) paired well with both the brisket and tamale pie.

Service A friendly trio of wait staff tag-teamed our table, including a bartender, who seemed to be in training, a waitress and a manager. Between the three of them, we always had what we needed.

The group hadn't perfected the art of seamless communication, though. Their multistaff approach meant we had to repeat ourselves occasionally, or explain that someone else was already bringing refills.

Dessert We were excited by the menu's promise of pie; during our visit, the choices were blueberry and cherry. We opted for a slice of blueberry with a scoop of vanilla ice cream ($4.99 for the pie, $2 for the ice cream).

The pie was a satisfying end to the meal, though it was good, not great, with filling that was a little sweeter and less vibrant than we'd hoped it would be. Still, it wasn't bad pie (if there even is such a thing).

Though when we visit again — and we will — when we order pie, we'll stick with the tamale type.

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