Food & Drink

Review: Chef Jesse Sandlin Does Baltimore Proud With Sally O’s

'Top Chef' alum shows off her love for her neighborhood by reinventing the beloved corner bar.
The iconic Smashburger at Sally O’s. —Photography by Justin Tsucalas

Arguably, no one has more Highlandtown pride than chef Jesse Sandlin. A nearly decade-long resident of the historically blue-collar neighborhood—rife with local businesses, restaurants, and arts institutions—Sandlin jumped at the opportunity to take over the longtime home of The Laughing Pint on the corner of Gough and South Conkling streets after it closed in the fall of 2019. Although the previous watering hole was beloved by locals, Sandlin wanted to reinvent the corner bar so that it would appeal to community residents and visitors alike.

“When this space became available, I felt strongly about creating a place that the neighborhood would feel comfortable in and want to patronize,” Sandlin says. “But I also think there’s something about bringing other people, and hopefully other businesses, to this area so they can see how great it is. If it’s the same 30 people coming here all the time, then the neighborhood is never going to grow.”

That mission has continued to guide Sally O’s, the first spot Sandlin has owned and operated herself. In the year since its debut, diners have flocked from near and far to snag a velvet-upholstered seat in the vibrant space, filled with greenery, neon signage (“This Must Be the Place” hangs above the bar), and wallpaper designed by former MICA students.

Around every corner, you’ll spot knick-knacks—everything from a twirling disco ball to a Notorious B.I.G. prayer candle—that reflect Sandlin’s eclectic style.

“It’s all me,” she says. “With COVID there were so many setbacks. When it came time to actually get the space finished, it was like, ‘I have this vision, but mostly it’s a bunch of [stuff] that I like on the wall.’”

Other details—from the name (after Sandlin’s grandmother, Mildred O’Dethal, whose nick-name was “Sally O”) to the food (experimental takes on classic comfort foods)—are just as personal. The Top Chef alum uses local ingredients from Richfield Farm in Manchester to craft specials based on what’s in season, but you can also count on staples such as the fan-favorite Highlandtown Smashburger—two chuck, brisket, and short rib patties layered with American cheese and classic fixins.

“Eat your feelings,” our server, Peter, suggested on a recent visit. After starting with a smooth gin, honey, and lemon cocktail, we did just that. We snacked on birria-style carnitas tacos and beets tossed in vinaigrette and topped with whipped chèvre, before biting into a fried chicken sandwich elevated by pickled onions and spicy mayo. We also enjoyed Sandlin’s “Crabonara,” inspired by a family-meal dish Sandlin was served while working in California years ago. Her version ingeniously mixes blue crab with the pasta instead of pancetta. It arrived seasoned just so—with specks of thyme, heaps of Parmesan, and clumps of the sweet meat.

The dish serves as another example of how Sandlin shows off her love for her neighborhood—and her customers, no matter where they come from.

The Scoop

SALLY O’S, 3135 Gough St., 410-624-5631. HOURS: Mon.-Sat. 5-10 p.m., late-night menu until midnight. PRICES: Appetizers: $6-22; entrees: $14-40; desserts: $6-10.