Bring on the barbecue, hold the tattoo

July 04, 1996|By Laura Rottenberg | Laura Rottenberg,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

California has long been the unrivaled leader in outlandish retail concepts, such as 24-hour, drive-through nail salon-video stores. But a Baltimore stalwart just might put those combos to shame. Cafe Tattoo is a music club cum barbecue joint cum tattoo parlor. The music is hit-and-miss and we have no criteria for judging the tattoos, but the barbecue merits taking the drive out Belair Road.

Technically, the tattoo parlor is upstairs from the dark, cavernous bar presided over by its chatty owner, Rick Catalano. A handful of tables adjacent to the stage constitutes the no-frills dining room, and there's a little patio out back for late afternoons.

If you rejoice in a menu as thick as a phone book, this may not be the place for you. There are just a handful of dishes from which to choose. On the other hand, the less time you spend brooding over what to eat, the more time you have for playing darts, sipping a refreshing snakebite (a blend of hard cider and draft beer) or listening to the cool jazz or thrashy Generation-X bands.

We started one evening with a bowl of mild beef-and-bean chili and an incendiary all-meat version (billed as "unleaded," for the gastrointestinally refined). The mild rendition was uninteresting and a bit sweet, but the meat chili proved savory and smoldering. We scooped both with the other appetizer option -- good, crisp tortilla chips (its accompanying salsa was eminently forgettable).

While taking our entree order, the owner/waiter/bartender patiently explained to us the difference between Texas-style barbecue and that of the Carolinas. Texas barbecue is shellacked with a sweet, tomatoey sauce, while Southern barbecue is smoked and then bathed in a more vinegary, mustardy sauce.

With this in mind, Cafe Tattoo is a purveyor of Carolina 'cue. Its baby back ribs and pork sandwiches are redolent of hickory smoke and swathed in a piquant, brown sauce. Our table's consensus was that the pork sandwich was more tender and flavorful than the ribs, but both dishes were accompanied by a nice corn salad and pasta salad dotted with black beans.

For those who don't eat pork, the pickings are a bit slim. The barbecued chicken on the menu has mysteriously never been available on our visits, but the black bean burrito is wholesome and filling, topped with salsa and sour cream.

The dessert menu is similarly lean: peanut butter pie. That's it. But no one complained about the slabs of pie brought to the table on flimsy paper plates. A crisp graham cracker crust cradles a not-too-sweet, nutty, silken filling. In lieu of pie, you may want to finish your meal with something from the bar, which boasts a lovely list of single-malt Scotches and bourbons.

As for the tattoo parlor, our party remains entirely uninked. No Tasmanian devils, yin-yangs or winged victories, but we all left the cafe happy and full.

Cafe Tattoo

4825 Belair Road

(410) 325-7427

Hours: Open Tuesday through Saturday, 4 p.m.-2 a.m.

Credit cards: Major credit cards

F: Prices: Appetizers, $1.50-$4.25; entrees, $3.00-$10.95

Pub Date: 7/04/96

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