Fish tacos more than just a surprise

If I hadn't heard from numerous sources that Captain Larry's Bar and Grill, 601 E. Fort Ave., served really good fish tacos, I would never have considered the place for lunch. Or dinner. Or any kind of meal.

I'd hung out there with friends one night. The place was packed, but it impressed me as a neighborhood tap that failed to keep up appearances because it knew it could count on steady trade from regulars that appreciated a bar within crawling distance of their rowhouses. Funky and fun for a meet-up if you're in the Federal Hill- Locust Point area, but otherwise, no thanks.

But I kept hearing about the fish tacos.

If you're acquainted with Captain Larry's, you probably know where this is headed.

12:34 p.m. We entered and paused ever so briefly, a bit stunned by the first flush of visual dissonance. The place was empty save for a woman wiping a table. We asked if lunch was being served. She assured us it was and said we might sit anywhere we like.

The interior was worse than I remembered: whole chunks of fallen away wall, torn vinyl upholstery, mismatched everything: What wasn't shabby was kitschy. A stuffed, shellacked alligator hung from the ceiling. A broad, wispy, black and white Inner Harbor mural decorates the length of one wall. The place is a study in tacky decrepitude.

We took a few minutes to look over the menu. We came for fish tacos, but the fact that Larry's had other fare intrigued me. I expected the burger, the roasted turkey, and, OK, the buttermilk chicken and maybe the build-your-own grilled cheese — not a stretch for bar fare. We chuckled over Ryan's Badass Humass. But then I glanced at the specials chalked on a greenboard opposite our table. Quiche? This place serves quiche? And vichyssoise?

12:41 p.m. Our server delivered the hummus, a big mound of it sharing a plate with seasoned, toasted pita wedges, sliced tomatoes, carrots, celery, cukes and, our favorite, capers. The hummus was less oily and far chunkier than I'm used to, with a showy garlic bite. OK, so hummus isn't the most difficult appetizer to get right. But Ryan's hummus is confident and nuanced — I think that, in a setting in which a dead sailor slumped in the corner with a knife protruding from his chest would not be out of place, that's saying something.

At one point, my friend speculated that Captain Larry's ambience lowers expectations and thereby gives the food a psychological edge. But we quickly dismissed that theory on the grounds that our starter tasted too good: gastronomy, not psychology.

12:50 p.m. Plates of fish tacos are set before us.

My lunch companion had sampled fish tacos in San Francisco and was hoping for something nearly as nice from Captain Larry's. I had never had fish tacos. Both of us, for slightly different reasons, were astounded.

Inside the toasted flour tortilla, the fish, mahi mahi according to the menu, was bright, firm, succulent, lightly breaded. Chopped cabbage, a trace of tartar sauce and a hint of cheddar cheese accessorized with red and green salsa on the side. The whole thing made perfect sense: crunchy, light, juicy to slightly drippy, spicy and … healthy?

I was expecting a novelty dish along the lines of the "lake trout" sandwich. Captain Larry's fish taco — $9 for a plate of three — betrays the care that's gone into every detail of its meticulously contrived dive-bar ambience.

1:14 p.m. We pay up — cash only at Larry's (ATM on premises) — and leave.

Captain Larry's was such a surprise that I went back with three more friends a few nights later. We all ordered the tacos, plus the asparagus and goat cheese quiche, out of curiosity.

Captain Larry's is a neighborhood joint that doesn't take its neighbors for granted. It offers a quirky menu that no chain could pull off and no respectable upscale pub would attempt. It's just the sort of character you would expect and hope to find in Baltimore. It lets you debate: Is this a dive with really good food or a splendid little restaurant fastidiously disguised as a rat hole?

Captain Larry's Bar and Grill

Where: 601 E. Fort Ave.

Contact: 410-727-4799;

Lunch hours: 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m.

Sandwiches and specialties: $6-$9

Food: ✭✭✭

Service: ✭✭1/2

Atmosphere: ✭✭✭1/2

[Key:✭✭✭✭: Outstanding;✭✭✭: Good;✭✭: Fair or Uneven;✭: Poor]

Dining time 40 minutes