May 27, 2023

SoCal Vibes in Baltimore

One night many years ago I got drunk with the devil in Baltimore...

Joe McNamee, Irish Examiner
SoCal Vibes in Baltimore
"It may not reinvent the wheel but it is a family-friendly offering for all ages, essential in a market of comparatively limited local footfall even at the height of tourist season when you need to keep everyone happy."

One night many years ago I got drunk with the devil in Baltimore and struck a Faustian deal ensuring whenever I returned in the future to the effortlessly charming West Cork maritime village, the sun would always be splitting the stones. The next day the devil sobered up and realised my dark soul would egregiously lower the tone in hell but agreed to hold up his end of the bargain.

Ok, very little, perhaps none of that, may be true, but I don’t think in all my years I have ever seen Baltimore in the rain and yet again as I roll down into the village one Friday evening in May, this meteorological miracle is once more in effect and it is quite heavenly. The first huzzah of summer, it seems the entire town has decamped to the sun-kissed plaza that is the metaphorical, sometimes even literal, belly of Baltimore.

I procure a fine pint of plain from Bushe’s and dive right in as we lounge indolently in the heat like pampered tabbies, sipping cold drinks, soaking up hot rays, there being seemingly nothing else to do in the world than gaze idly out over the harbour and across the water to nearby Sherkin Island, until Salacious B, my dinner companion arrives.

The Algiers Inn is a local hostelry, a pub since 1893. I’m not sure if it is the original name but it recalls the legendary Sack of Baltimore in 1631 by Barbary pirates, led by a Dutchman and crewed by Algerians, who raided the village and carried off 107 men, women and children, never to be seen again.

New proprietors Bill and Ann Hillyard have grafted onto older maritime associations more than a soupcon of stylish souk to the decor, a strong North African theme running throughout: Moorish tiles, potted palms, hand carved wood-panelled screens and a gorgeous bar, opulently tiled, underlit below counter level; the buzz is entirely homegrown, crackling electricity, sparking from the moment we enter the lively space.

Ann and Bill Hillyard at The Algiers Inn, Baltimore. Picture: Larry Cummins

The Hillyards bought the pub in February 2020 and opened during peak pandemic, in October 2020, an act of magnificent madness suggestive of so many of the bolder hospitality dreamers but a multi-faceted menu masterminded by Ballymaloe Cookery School alumna Ann Hillyard suggests a cannier pragmatism is also at play.

The core is essentially classic American diner: burgers, Mac and cheese, sliders, New York-style meatballs; this evening a special of ‘classic’ meatloaf with mashed potatoes and onion and mushroom gravy. Then there are ‘Irish’ additions: fish and chips, chicken and chips; and the coastal staples to be found in most casual dining venues along the Wild Atlantic Way, a mussels dish (Mussels Algiers, in harissa broth) and seafood chowder, both always welcome when done well.

It may not reinvent the wheel but it is a family-friendly offering for all ages, essential in a market of comparatively limited local footfall even at the height of tourist season when you need to keep everyone happy.

But where it gets really intriguing is the injection of a pronounced Mexi-Cali theme; native Californians, the Hillyards’ SoCal influences are evident in a special tacos section. It turns out Bill Hillyard also has a passion for premium tequilas and mezcal, a superb selection backboning a concise but muscular cocktail list.

Oaxacan Dove

Classic margaritas are a specialty but I opt for Oaxacan Dove, a house take on the Mexican Paloma, and it is absolutely smashing: Monte Alban Mezcal, 100% Agave Tequila, Grand Marnier, house-made grapefruit sherbet and fresh grapefruit juice.

We order tacos, along with (very fine!) skinny fries and simple green salad but first up is a ‘Mac and Cheese Bomb’ which SB has espied on the specials board, deep-fried breaded croquette of mac and cheese which rather tickles the mischievous SB, a proud Scot who guffaws at the cholesterol-scorning insouciance with which her national compatriots will deep fry any substance known to humanity as long as it fits in a fryer. Dredged in blue cheese dip, it is entirely shorn of subtlety but criminally addictive, though I restrict myself to one to preserve my appetite.

Mac & Cheese Bomb

SB has pounced on Ciù Ciù Piceno Bacchus, from a tight but intriguing list and fulsome, fruity Montepulciano, dark cherries with a hint of anise, is pleasant, easy quaffing.

Good warmed corn tortillas are from Lily Ramirez-Foran’s Picado Mexican food store in Dublin, a promising start for the tacos. Baja fish taco is beer battered haddock, served with tangy Mexican crema, a ‘cousin’ of sour cream, crunchy green cabbage slaw and perky house salsa. Carnitas taco is a sweet and savoury mouthful of tender pork confit, with a verdant, vibrant salsa verde, creamy guacamole and pickled red onions.

Coliflor en Nogado taco

Coliflor en Nogado taco, is steamed spiced cauliflower, with earthy black beans, cheesy walnut crema, shredded cabbage and pomegranate, and while cauliflower is flavourful, potent spicing and excessive steaming masks its primary essence and innate crunchy snap, which would have better anchored the swirling and varied complexities of this particular mouthful.

As good as the fish taco, maybe even edging it, is the Carne Asada, grilled Walsh’s West Cork skirt steak, succulent with juicy umami, dressed with diced raw red onion, coriander, guacamole, and fiesty house salsa.

Key Lime Pie

Desserts are full-bore American diner, for the seriously sweet of tooth, dentist be damned. A mud pie special is long gone so we share key lime pie. Precisely rendered, delightful citric lime trilling through lush sweetness, it would be crack cocaine for any of my progeny, but a couple of mouthfuls is sufficient sugaring for this ageing palate.

The big culinary beast in Baltimore these days is Dede, Ahmet Dede and Maria Archer’s superlative Michelin two starred restaurant that now draws guests from all over Ireland as well as the UK and around Europe.

Many remain in the area for several days and after a blowout meal at Dede’s are always in the market for good, well cooked tasty food and a lively atmosphere but without the Michelin bells and whistles.

The Algiers Inn very much fits that bill — and if you fancy topping off a fine evening of wining and dining with a tasting flight of top drawer tequilas, then The Algiers Inn is the only place around to fit that bill!

The verdict

  • Food: 8
  • Service: 8
  • Value: 9.5
  • Atmosphere: 9