Bar food rides high at Cowboys & Rednecks Pub

With country music blaring, honky-tonk decor, and a menu stacked with smokehouse favorites, Cowboys & Rednecks (also known as CNR) is hardly shy about its theme. We half expected the hostess to greet us with a "Yeehaw!"

CNR's owner, Federal Hill resident and big-time country music fan Guy Naylor, opened the bar in late 2011, imagining that it would be a fun addition to his neighborhood. Local bar-hoppers agreed; CNR is often packed to overflowing on weekend nights.

CNR's success as a bar is uncontested, but its status as a go-to restaurant is less confirmed. Chef Shawn McClure, formerly of nearby restaurant Ryleigh's Oyster, turns out good American food, but service that's stuck in bar mode leaves the dining experience with room to improve.

On a recent Thursday night just before 7, CNR was moderately crowded with groups of friends drinking beer and eating wings. We found a seat without trouble and a jeans-and-flannel-clad waitress quickly brought us big, frosty mugs of easy-drinking, Texas-brewed Shiner Bock ($2.50 during happy hour, $5 otherwise).

Throughout the night, our waitress did an expert job keeping our icy mugs filled. She kept a close eye on our drinks, buzzing over to offer refills whenever our glasses were less than half full.

She wasn't as quick, though, to check on our food. Though it arrived from the kitchen quickly, the waitress never asked how things were, leaving us with the impression that at CNR, food comes second to beer.

That's a shame. Chef McClure's menu deserves a closer look.

Though some of the entrees seem like an odd fit for a country and western bar — ginger soy tuna? — McClure does a good job melding bar-friendly local favorites with southern spices.

An appetizer of Natty Boh-steamed mussels ($11.95) was full of kick, thanks to small rounds of spicy andouille sausage. Cooked just right, the mussels were big and plump.

Two thick slices of buttered, grilled bread laid across the bowl. We used them to sop up every bit of the buttery, spicy beer broth.

CNR has a steak on the menu every night, usually a filet or rib eye. During our visit, the 12-ounce rib eye ($17.95) was nicely marbled and cooked exactly to medium rare. Dusted with a spicy seasoning, the steak had flavor as big as Texas.

The steak came with a generous scoop of garlicky potatoes, mashed with their skins on, and fat green beans sauteed with garlic.

Both sides were cooked with care and full of flavor, leaving us with only one wish: for a bigger plate. Our petite plate was the right size for the table, but too small for all the food piled on it, making cutting and eating a challenge.

A pit beef sandwich with sweet potato tots and coleslaw ($11.95) was more manageable.

Smoked in-house, the beef was moist and tender, with subtle smoky flavor. The sandwich is served cold. It's tasty that way and easy to eat, but we wondered if a little warmth would bolster the beef's smokiness.

On the side, sweet potato tater tots were sweet and crunchy — a good match for the beef — and a tart vinegar-based slaw added welcome acidity to the plate.

After dinner, we had another beer — delivered quickly, with a smile — but when we were ready for dessert, our waitress had disappeared.

CNR listed two desserts on the menu, but no one else in the bar was indulging. We ordered one of the two sweets advertised, but a few minutes later, our waitress informed us that the kitchen didn't actually have the desserts on the menu. They did have salted caramel cupcakes from Midnite Confections Cupcakery, a nearby bakery.

Five minutes later, we started to feel guilty for ordering dessert at all, imagining someone from the kitchen sprinting down Charles Street to and from the bakery.

But when our cupcakes arrived ($5.95 for two), we forgot about the guilt. Dressed with squiggles of chocolate and caramel sauces, the cupcakes were moist and sweet, with just enough salt to offset the sugar.