Driving around looking for a place to park can cut into a lunch hour, and Mama's on the Half Shell, at 2901 O'Donnell St. in Canton, happens to be in a neighborhood where parking is at a premium. Our recent visit required a five-block hike, and we felt lucky to get as close as we do without having to cruise the neighborhood watching lunch minutes tick by. It really helps that Mama's, a tavern for seafood lovers, is worth enduring that inevitable city-life hassle.
12:45 We enter a packed Mama's, jammed upstairs and down, and learn we're looking at a 20-minute wait for a table for two. We note a handful of tables up front and a long bar, every chair filled, and a few people standing along the wall behind the bar. We're later told that this is an exceptionally busy time of year for the tavern.
12:51 A couple of chairs open up at the bar and we seat ourselves and begin poring over the regular and specials menus. The bartender is constantly moving along her narrow redoubt, shuffling drinks and food while fielding comments and keeping up with about a half-dozen conversations. Her expression suggests she likes the action.
1:00 We order, and three minutes later, the hostess drops by to tell us a table is available. Since we're already at the bar, we decide to stay put. The tables are nice, more spacious than the bar, and brightened by windows looking onto O'Donnell. The place has the feel of an old inn with New England tones over distinctly Baltimore notes. Above the bar, a collection of oyster cracker cans and a bust of Elvis encased in a box with an antique can of Natty Boh hint at the character of this place we're rapidly warming to.
1:13 Mama's manages to pull off a simultaneously bar-casual and unpretentiously classy vibe that appears to draw from the full spectrum of collar colors and legal-drinking ages. The Christmas music, big-band and jazz varieties, fit the general mood. And after almost a half-hour waiting and absorbing the atmosphere, I'm beginning to feel we're in for a treat. People on either side of us have been seated longer and still haven't seen lunch. And no one is complaining, even as we watch plate after plate of oysters — three varieties that day — pass by us on their way to other lucky patrons. Then our beer mussels arrive.
1:24 The large, World War I-helmet-size bowl holds dozens of mussels in a peppery tomato-based broth with shrimp, sausage, onion and tomato thrown in. The beer mussels are a signature dish at Mama's, and I'm not sure I could ever eat there again without ordering this slightly sloppy, entirely seductive treat. When we ordered, our bartender/server waved us off after we asked for both the mussels and the spiced tuna. With entrees, that's too much food, she warned. She was right. Frankly, the mussels, with a 6-inch chunk of baguette would make a good lunch for two. We are more relieved we didn't order both when we saw our entrees arrive.
1:34 My friend's New Orleans-style fried oyster PoBoy ($10), rich with oysters, is supported by another delicious bread. After the mussels, it is no leap to expect an above-average oyster sandwich. What surprises us are the tartar sauce and coleslaw. They make us instant fans. The celery seed and celery salt notes in the coleslaw are perfect, and my friend, who generally passes on tartar, loves this example that rises well above the common mayo and pickles offering.
I could easily have picked a more exotic entree than my fish and chips ($15), but I want to see how Mama's handles this common menu item. When our server sets the plate in front of me, my first thought is: whale. On a bed of fries, which look store-bought average but are addictive as any good fries can be, is one enormous piece of crunchy-battered cod jutting over both sides of the plate. The batter is toasty, a bit oily, which I like and my dining companion doesn't, and steam floats up from the tender white fish.
1:46 Mama's is now not quite as packed as when we entered. It looks like every seat is still filled, but there are fewer people waiting. We spend another 15 minutes picking at our fries and holding brief chats with our bar neighbors. Mama's is conducive to meeting strangers. At the bar, you sit close enough that it's nearly unavoidable. And the ice breaker seems always to be the quality and quantity of Mama's offerings.
2:01 We finish, pay and vow to return to this exquisite Baltimore gold mine. I very much doubt we could have expected to get out of here much sooner. It might be a place to pass if you're pressed for time during holiday seasons. But I wouldn't hesitate to return any time of year, and now that we know the menu we might save time processing that before ordering.
Note: Mama's raw and steamer bar probably deserve a review of its own. Judging by what we saw being passed to other diners, and by the general friendly feel of the place, Mama's would be an ideal place to kill an afternoon downing shellfish and quaffing beer. It's also next door to it's older sister, Nacho Mama's.
Dining time 76 minutes
Mama's on the Half Shell
Where: 2901 O'Donnell St., Canton
Lunch hours (for lunch specials menu): 11:00 a.m.-4 p.m.
Lunch sandwiches: $8-$14
Lunch entrees: $15-$31
[Key: ✭✭✭✭ Outstanding; ✭✭✭: Good; ✭✭: Fair or Uneven; ✭: Poor]