Little things add up at homey Burke's

March 05, 1998|By Kathryn Higham | Kathryn Higham,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

When a restaurant has been going strong for more than 60 years, it must be doing something right.

At Burke's Cafe, it's the little things. Three-inch-wide onion rings and foot-long zucchini spears that are hand-breaded and fried to a golden crisp, for instance.

We got the feeling that the kitchen has been doing things the old-fashioned way since William Beery Jr. and his partner opened their doors in 1934 on the corner of Light and Lombard streets in downtown Baltimore.

At the time, Burke's was a rough-and-tumble sailors' bar, named for a jockey that Beery's partner had bet on and liked. It's the Burke family heraldic crest, traced back to Ireland, that still hangs on the dining room wall.

There are other medieval touches in the dark, wood-paneled restaurant, like the diamond-pattern stained-glass windows and beamed ceiling. Don't get the idea that this is upscale dining, though. Burke's is a bar-restaurant with Formica-topped tables and high-backed booths.

It's also a restaurant with a menu that runs the gamut from grilled frankfurters to flounder with crab imperial. Start with a basket of fried zucchini and Burke's famous onion rings. Greaseless, crunchy-edged and golden, they are worth every calorie. We wished we had ordered the homemade potato chips, too, after seeing them being devoured at a nearby table. This restaurant knows how to fry.

Burke's potato pancakes -- served with homemade cinnamon applesauce -- are also greaseless. With a creamy texture and soft golden skin, they tasted almost as light as buttermilk pancakes. On our next visit, we'll try them with the sour beef, an old-time Baltimore favorite.

A lot of what we tried at Burke's had a homey appeal. The beef stew, in a bright-red tomato gravy, was full of long cuts of carrot and celery, and nearly whole pared potatoes.

The home-style meatloaf featured two enormous slabs served as an open-faced sandwich on white bread. Made with beef, veal and not much else, the meatloaf was just this side of dry, but it was moistened with lots of ruby-colored Creole sauce, as bright as our stew.

The jumbo lump crab cake is a good choice at Burke's. It had a dose of hot, dry mustard that contrasted nicely with the sweet lumps of crab. That made for an assertive flavor that would stand up well under a bun.

Don't bother with chewy clams casino made with incinerated bacon, however, or giant fried chicken sticks wrapped in mozzarella. One piece of our chicken was so fat, it wasn't completely cooked; in fact, it was raw on one end. Skip the overdone baked salmon and the steaks, also. Our strip steak had a tough exterior, as if it had been pan-fried. A friend swears by Burke's strip-steak sandwich, though, which he calls the best deal in Baltimore.

Whatever you order, be sure to save room for warm cinnamon apples and ice cream, double chocolate layer cake or, our favorite, the nut-encrusted rum cake. Created years ago by the owner's wife, Crickett, this bundt cake was so moist and light, so balanced in its flavors of butter and rum, it made us want to take some home. We could have, too. Burke's sells whole rum cakes for $22.

Burke's Cafe

Address: 36 Light St.


Hours: Open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner

Credit cards: All major cards

Prices: Appetizers, $1.75-$16.75 (steamed shrimp); entrees, $3.55-$21.25

Pub Date: 3/05/98

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