Hook, Line & Ax expands the firehouse-cook tradition


August 19, 1999|By Kathryn Higham | Kathryn Higham,Special to the Sun

Ever since I was little, I've known about the tradition of firehouse cooks. At home, my dad would re-create wonderful meals he'd eaten while working at firehouses in New York City -- hearty dishes like pork chops with apples and sauerkraut.

Now, if he had only come across Louisiana-style shrimp. That's the house specialty of Hook, Line & Ax, a Fells Point bar with old fire helmets and photos of firetrucks on the walls. Karl Zimmerman, a lieutenant with the Baltimore City Fire Department, and his sister, Susan Campion, opened the bar in April. The Louisiana-style shrimp, I'm told, is a family recipe.

A half-pound of those shrimp, still in the shell, are served as an appetizer for $7.95. They arrive in a dark buttery sauce with a hint of lemon. A heavy coating of cracked black pepper provides the heat. This is classy bar food, and a great alternative to spiced shrimp.

But here's the sinker for Hook, Line & Ax. This is a bar, not a restaurant. There is no wait staff, just a friendly firefighter-slash-bartender, who jumps from behind the taps and pulls up a chair to take orders.

There are no more than a dozen tables in the place, counting the few outside under umbrellas in the courtyard and the ones in the back room next to the fluorescent fire hydrant. Apart from appetizers and salads, there are only sandwiches on the menu. There's no dessert and sometimes not even milk for coffee.

However, if you're looking for a small, friendly bar in which to grab a beer and a burger, Hook, Line & Ax is perfect. The burgers are made with fresh ground beef that has good flavor, and served on soft kaiser rolls with red-ripe tomatoes, leaf lettuce and sliced onion. Other sandwiches are plated the same way, including a juicy grilled chicken sandwich, glazed with barbecue sauce, and a somewhat flavorless shrimp salad sandwich, made with chunks of tender shrimp and bits of celery in a mayo-based dressing. Burgers and sandwiches come with chips, or with french fries and slaw for an extra $1.50.

One clunker to avoid is the crab-cake sandwich. Dense and chock-full of filler, it's more like a coddie. That struck us as odd, since the crab dip we tried earlier in the evening was fine. It was a thin, creamy version with sweet bits of onion and nice lumps of crab, spooned into a bread bowl. Even the Maryland crab soup (lukewarm, salty and forgettable) had a generous sprinkling of crab.

Like most bars, Hook, Line & Ax has its own version of buffalo wings, offered in various stages of heat. We went straight to the "fully involved -- five alarm" wings. Wow. These Hook, Line & Ax guys may know how to put out fires, but they also know how to start them. The crisp wings were scorchers, and just what we wanted.

Want to suggest a restaurant for reviewing? We welcome your input. Send e-mail to kathhigham@aol.com or write to Kathryn Higham, Newsroom-Fifth Floor, The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore, Md. 21278.

Hook, Line & Ax

1705 Aliceanna St.


Hours: Open daily for lunch and dinner

Credit cards: All major cards

Prices: Appetizers, $2.95-$7.95; entrees, $4.95-$6.75

Food: ** 1/2

Service: **

Atmosphere: **

Ratings system: Outstanding: ****; Good ***; Fair or uneven **; Poor *

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