Mama's on the Half Shell is now a bona fide, indisputable major success. That's fine. Mama's was a love letter to Baltimore from Patrick "Scunny" McCusker, a successful tavern owner and indefatigable nice guy whose wonderful life continues to be celebrated and honored almost a year after his untimely death.
McCusker, who loved his city very much, wanted Baltimore to have a good, old-fashioned seafood house, something nice but not too fancy, where diners would feel as comfortable and satisfied as they did at places like Haussner's and Connolly's, a memorable seafood shack on the old waterfront.
Back in 2003, there wasn't a take-all-comers seafood house in Baltimore, which was a hard thing to explain to anyone who came to town looking for one. So McCusker created one in an old Catholic War Veterans hall a few doors down from Nacho Mama's, his pioneering Tex-Mex tavern on O'Donnell Square.
McCusker lined the building's walls with dark wood, installed a gorgeous African teak bar on the first floor and decorated the joint with old waterfront photos, framed oyster plates and colorful oyster cans. He also put in a real oyster bar — a relative novelty in the Baltimore of 2003.
The opening menu was simple and straightforward, with no agenda. It even included a section paying tribute to the old Connolly's, offering diners basic fried seafood dishes, the kind of thing that snooty eaters think is bad but everyone loves.
You wouldn't have thought it would work, this deliberate and self-conscious attempt at creating a new environment that people feel nostalgic in.
But it did, mostly because McCusker was as shrewd as he was sentimental. Ten years in, Mama's has lost none of its luster, and, if a recent weeknight visit is any indication, none of its popularity either.
Upstairs, downstairs and at sidewalk tables on Linwood Avenue, Mama's was at capacity, and then some. I asked: Is it always like this? It's always like this, everyone said.
But Mama's doesn't act like a dining landmark. It's still fundamentally a Canton gathering spot. Folks can linger at their tables long after another restaurant would have found a way to dislodge them.
Still, popularity does take a toll. You taste how overwhelmed the kitchen is on a busy night.
The appetizers were winners. We enjoyed the velvety, buttery cream of crab soup with good crab meat flavor, and we loved a Mama's classic, the devils on horseback: juicy oysters wrapped in warm bacon, and served with a kicky hot sauce. We particularly liked a special sesame tuna salad, attractively assembled and served with crunchy cabbage.
Main courses were not enjoyable. Fried oysters were mushy and had a flavorless breading. The seafood bouillabaisse was more like a jambalaya and not the better for it. The broth — although it really wasn't a broth — lacked zest and good fish flavor, and the seafood and fish inside were just serviceable.
The twin tournedos, one of four selections on the menu's "Filets Four Ways" section, didn't look like they were pieces cut from the tenderloin's tip, and they were clobbered by a brandy sauce with the consistency and flavor of milk gravy. The best entree was a simple broiled and minimally seasoned wahoo fillet, but it was a little overcooked.
Except for the pleasantly crunchy and vinegary coleslaw, the sides should be better. Plain, steamed broccoli is in keeping with the menu's throwback, theme, but still dull. The french fries should be great here, but they come across as a food-service product.
The desserts, homemade things like creme brulee, white-chocolate bread pudding with Kentucky bourbon sauce and "derbie pie," have been on Mama's menu for a long time. They're fine if you have a sweet tooth but sounded too heavy for summertime.
The best times at Mama's are still those early afternoons at the bar, ordering up steamed shellfish and raw oysters, and toasting Scunny with ice-cold Natty Bohs.
Mama's on the Half Shell
Where: 2901 O'Donnell St.,
Contact: 410-276-3160, http://www.mamasmd.com
Open: Lunch and dinner daily
Prices: Appetizers $7.99-$13.99; entrees $16.99-$30.99
Food: Classic seafood preparations and steaks
Best dishes: Devils on horseback, cream of crab soup, sesame tuna salad
Parking: On-street parking
Children: The menu's "kiddie's corner" includes things like grilled cheese, small hamburgers and pasta.
Noise level/television: Loud in the way you'd expect but not more so. Depending on the sporting event, the six TVs around the first-floor bar might have the sound on. There are no TVs upstairs.
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