There's no shortage of places in Mount Vernon to get a good cup of coffee and a sandwich. So what makes Baby's On Fire (1010 Morton St.,  885-9892, babysonfire.com) such a welcome and necessary addition to the neighborhood is the second part of its business model: It's also a record store.
The area between Fells Point, Federal Hill, and Hampden is a no man's land for music nerds, and now Baby's On Fire offers an all-in-one stop to grab a bite, sip a latte, and thumb through stacks of records. Maybe those are three things you didn't ever consider doing at once, but lemme tell ya, it's a worthwhile way to spend your time, especially if you're trying to put your mind at ease during the brief respite that is the workday lunch break. The simple pleasure of looking to add to your vinyl collection while nursing a coffee isn't so bad either.
First, let's look at it as a record store. What Baby's On Fire lacks in volume it makes up for in curation, with a rock section stocked with essentials—classics like the Beatles and Stones, formative indie groups like Galaxie 500 and The Jesus Lizard, and some of the best current touring indie bands like Deerhunter and latest craze Car Seat Headrest—and smaller sections dedicated to African, French pop, Latin, dub/reggae, world, odds + sods (which included such disparate albums as music from the TV show "All In the Family," a recording of The Great March on Washington, and a Flip Wilson comedy album) and country/folk. There are larger sections for R&B/soul and jazz, but sadly no stand-alones for hip-hop or dance music.
And they represent the city's music scene well. By my count, there were more than 20 locals represented, everything from the most obvious choices (Beach House, Future Islands, Dan Deacon, etc.) to new tapes from post-punk quartet Post Pink and the album "Black Ben Carson" by rapper JPEGMAFIA. (As an aside, there is a small but steadily growing wall rack for those inexplicably coveted fetish objects, if that's your thing.)
It wouldn't be wise to go in looking for a particular title, because it would be hard for Baby's On Fire to stock every album by, say, Scottish indie group Orange Juice and maintain the wide array of groups they have. Instead, go in with an open mind and you'll surely find something that needs to be on your shelf at home.
Prices are pretty reasonable, too. On a recent visit I found a copy of Fleetwood Mac's 1975 self-titled album for $4 and a couple albums by The Cars for $5 a piece. Most of the used titles are right around $10. But there are some reminders—including, most notably, a sealed copy of the Future Islands album "Wave Like Home" for $75 and a first pressing of Metallica's "Ride the Lightning" for $100—of how absurdly pricey the vinyl market has become.
How does it stack up as a cafe? Well, music is obviously a central part of the shop, so there's always something good on—and, thankfully, the cover of the album pouring out of the speakers is always on display on a ledge near the bathroom door. During a recent trip, the seminal Sonic Youth album "Daydream Nation" was on, causing one patron to hum along to the melody of 'Candle.'
The menu features a selection of coffee drinks made with beans from uber-hip New York roasters Stumptown Coffee, breakfast pastries, croissants, bagels, muffins, and scones, and a lunch menu of paninis (each with a music-referencing name), soups, and salads.
My dining partner and I stopped by for lunch on a recent Thursday, sharing bites of The Bird, a panini with turkey, mozzarella, sweet peppers, and sundried tomato aioli ($9, comes with chips or fresh fruit); Thai peanut noodles ($4.50); a Persian chicken salad ($5.50); and a chilled minted melon and cucumber soup ($5).
Neatly pressed without the black burn marks found on some paninis, The Bird offered a very sweet taste, owing to the strong presence of the peppers which mixed well with the more savory aioli. There was a healthy helping of cheese, and the warm, melted texture was just right, making for a delectable sandwich.
The noodles and salad both offered a nice hit of spice. The former had a strong peanut flavor along with the low-level heat, while the latter was more balanced, with the all-white meat chicken covered with mayonnaise sprinkled with Za'atar—small slices of apricot added nice bursts of sweetness. Similarly balanced, the soup had mixed the tart and salty cucumber side with the sweet and creamy melon.
The sandwich was served on a plate, but the other items in our order came in plastic containers, which our dining partner observed was "like eating a sad-desk lunch, but I'm paying for it." That quibble about presentation aside, it was a very enjoyable lunch.
But one of the moments that stays with me most from my visits to Baby's On Fire came as I was working my way through the last half of the alphabet in the rock section. The record changed, and suddenly fuzzy noise-pop took left turns with some metal-like guitar solos. I turned to see what was playing and soon learned that music came courtesy of D.C. trio Flasher. That exciting sense of discovery is the hallmark of a great record store experience. And here, you can get a good meal and coffee to boot.