Koco's gets a makeover but remains a gem

EATS

May 18, 2000|By David Richardson and Cameron Barry | David Richardson and Cameron Barry,Special to the Sun

Our waitress is so slim it looks like she never eats the food. This usually isn't a good sign at a restaurant, but at Koco's, it turns out to be a false alarm. We don't know what her diet is, but as far as we could tell, at Koco's, the higher the calorie content, the better the food.

Koco's is a Lake Montebello mainstay that has recently gotten a face lift. The neighborhood bar has been freshly painted inside and out in very bright (parrot) colors. New T-shirts and hats with a beachy motif, and the occasional stuffed toy parrot, complete the tropical theme.

Koco's is dominated by a long, well-used wooden bar running half the length of the spacious room, which also includes a dining area and two pool tables in the back. Neighborhood regulars lined the bar the evening we visited, but they smiled and made us feel welcome.

We sat in an assortment of mismatched but comfortable chairs by one of the pool tables. (On weekends, the dining room tends to fill up early, but the eight-ball tournaments don't crank up until later in the evening.)

Place settings are basic paper and plastic, but the service is genuinely warm, unhurried but prompt. Our waitress was enthusiastic and very helpful in describing the menu. She also didn't freak out when we took our time figuring who wanted the ribs or the special pasta the most (we try to be fair).

On the menu, bar food still dominates (fortunately), but there are daily specials, such as stuffed swordfish and pasta with pesto, that point to greater variety and ambition.

The food was, across the board, above average. We particularly liked the traditional bar-and-grill grub, which was good and basic. We shared a vat of crab dip, a delicious dieter's meltdown loaded with big lumps of crab meat in a hot, creamy, herbed-cheese sauce.

A pleasing chaser to the dip was Maryland crab soup, which was rich with the flavor of crab and summer vegetables in a good, clear stock. We nibbled on buffalo shrimp, the deep-fried-seafood version of the wing recipe. While good, the recipe is best kept to chicken wings, which are available at Koco's in quantities from a dozen to plenty for a whole weekend of beer and billiards.

Koco's serves shrimp by the pound, steamed with onions and potatoes (and Old Bay). They are good enough for a dinner by themselves.

For one of our main courses, we picked a special -- penne with chicken strips in tomato pesto sauce -- to give the kitchen a test drive. The pasta was perfect, the sauce complex, even thoughtfully constructed, and the chicken, well, it was just chicken strips. Baby back ribs, which have come out of many a kitchen as lifeless slabs, are tender and juicy at Koco's -- not at all awash in the pleasantly peppery sauce.

Koco's very good, very big grilled cheeseburger is crisp on the outside while juicy inside. Ours was cooked correctly to order and served on a big, flavorful roll. The grill's crowning glory, though, is a well-priced, bagel-sized crab cake: It's plain, it's basic, it's a lot of crab with a little binder, and it's very good. All but the pasta came with decent french fries and a little coleslaw.

Desserts were perhaps too plain: rice pudding and a kind of cheesecake were kitchen-made but served in takeout containers. The cheesecake -- more a cheese pudding -- could use some rethinking, but the rice pudding was appetizing and at least true to its name.

Koco's is a good neighborhood eatery that is calling out to the rest of the city. It's in a beautiful, underappreciated part of town and has plenty of parking and friendly people. Those attributes, along with well-priced beer and drinks and food that's well above the steam-table/hot-griddle norm, make Koco's well worth a visit.

Koco's Grill

4301 Harford Road

410-426-3519

Hours: Open daily for lunch and dinner

Credit cards: MasterCard, Visa

Prices: Appetizers $3.50 to $8.95; entrees $5.95 to $13.95

Food: ***

Service: **1/2

Atmosphere: **

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

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