City Paper's Best of Baltimore 2013
(June 19, 2014)
BEST NEW RESTAURANT
1444 Light St., (443) 449-7129, liv2eat.com
When we walked into Liv2eat for the first time, our first thought was, I want to move in here. It’s as if they’ve taken the comfort of our living room and combined it with the sophistication of a Voltaggio. We sat in their breathtaking courtyard, imagining our furniture here and there, and wondering how hard it would be to deal with the constant influx of hungry patrons passing through. The server was so positively bubbly and delightful, surely she wouldn’t mind our moving in. They’ve even gone to the trouble of growing many of the vegetables and herbs we consumed there. The seasonally changing menu is phenomenal. The presentation is delightful. The setting is stunning. And the service, by a staff that seems genuinely happy to be doing what they’re doing, makes the experience one that should be repeated. As often as possible.
Cyrus Keefer, Fork & Wrench
Cyrus Keefer has bounced around from one restaurant to another, always with the promise that he would be able to cook his food the way he wanted. After a few moths, his masters would change their minds and have him flipping burgers to lower food costs. This is not the case at Fork & Wrench, where chef Keefer has been let loose to be as creative as he wants, with the promise that there will be no “burger bar” moments. Even when Keefer makes a burger, it’s on his own terms. The Wrench is a “burger” made up of two thickly sliced medallions of house-made paté that’s wrapped in bacon, finished on the grill, and placed on a brioche bun with havarti, house-cured pickles, lettuce, and a Thousand Island gribiche. The seriously satisfying dishes he turns out at F&W are among the most imaginative in the city, with preparations such as beef shortrib tortelli, oil-poached calamari, and roasted bone marrow.
BEST ROMANTIC RESTAURANT
If the classic poster of a hirsute, nude Burt Reynolds stretched out on his side on top of a bearskin rug doesn’t put you in the mood, then nothing will. OK, we suspect that Henninger’s’ intimate atmosphere—with its small tables (perfect for whispering sweet nothings), low lighting, curious prints, paintings, and assorted gewgaws—will do the trick. And then there’s the menu, which could seem scattered but which we suspect derives its overarching theme from decadence: fried oysters in Pernod, rabbit sausage with apples and polenta, Cornish hen with gruyere-and-leek bread pudding, broiled whole fish served over jasmine rice, peanut butter pie, and lemon tartufo.
BEST FANCY RESTAURANT
2010 Clipper Park Road #126, (410) 464-8000, woodberrykitchen.com
Spike Gjerde’s six-year-old restaurant has grown to be a veritable institution in the city’s farm-to-table landscape: No one else does it quite as elegantly. And when you’ve determined to spend a sizable chunk of change on a nice dinner, the location, atmosphere, and food here make the choice feel merited. A stroll through the repurposed mill/office park seems—almost bizarrely—romantic and posh; it’s hard to get a seat and yet it doesn’t feel pretentious; the food you order, whether it be fig leaf-wrapped fluke or a barbecued chicken from the Eastern Shore, tastes like nothing else you can get in Baltimore. A worthwhile expenditure.
BEST CHEAP RESTAURANT
Taqueria El Sabor Del Parque
2901 Eastern Ave., (410) 558-0747
Tacos are always a good go-to when you’re looking to eat on the cheap. Taqueria El Sabor Del Parque, besides being a mouthful to say, serves up some of the best tacos (as well as burritos and sandwiches) around town without killing your bank account. They sell regular taco fillings, but it’s the weird stuff where they excel. Pig ears, lips, cheeks, and snouts are all cooked in a way to make even the squeamish sing the praises of these less-than-popular cuts. Offal fillings aside, one of their best tacos is filled with hot dogs. That’s right, tacos filled with motherfucking hotdogs!!!! It is just as good, if not better, than it sounds, and at $1.50 a piece, you can buy us a few while you’re there.
BEST RESTAURANT FOR VEGETARIAN FOOD
The Land of Kush
If meat is not your thing, or even if it is and you’re looking for something different, look to the Land of Kush restaurant for all of your veggie and vegan delights. “Vegan soul food” is the mantra here, and while standard soul-food favorites such as baked mac ’n’ cheese and collard greens are found on the menu, so are non-traditional vegan fare like soy protein barbecue ribs, curried chikun (their spelling), and even a vegan crab cake. Having a place for vegetarians and vegans to eat a full menu is great, but when omnivores go out of their way to eat said food, you know there’s something special going on.
BEST FOOD TRUCK
Gluttony, thy name is Kommie Pig. Where else can we get a fat and juicy Nathan’s dog slathered with chili, adorned with a helping of french fries, and doused generously in sauerkraut? Who else serves us a platter of peppery pulled pork, flanked by savory stewed collard greens and dilled-up potato salad? Who else will smoke their chicken till it falls of the bone, and then coat it with a smoky, spicy sauce? Nowhere that’s quite as excellent as Kommie Pig.
Staiton North Arts Café
“Downtown” Kevin Brown, one of the owners of the Station North Arts Café, is quite simply one of the coolest guys in town—one of the city’s treasures—and if you don’t know him, that doesn’t matter. He probably knows you. If not, come into the café and he will. In addition to Brown’s ultra-friendly, always-customized service, the place is home of the James Baldwin Literary Society. Also: Look for SNAC’s new restaurant, opening later this fall.
BEST COMEBACK (ACTUAL)
Dormant even longer than its sci-fi neighbor on North Charles (Lost City Diner), the Chesapeake reopened this year after more than 24 years. What was once an upscale meat-and-potatoes-plus-seafood place where your grandparents dined has been reborn as a vaguely locavore-friendly establishment with great promise. Only up and running since the first week of July, the restaurant continues to tweak and refine its offerings—presently including roasted chicken, rockfish, and Peking duck—and on our latest visit, a bartender mentioned possible future happy-hour discounts on bar snacks. Our fingers are crossed that prices will move down a smidgen, but that’s mainly because we’d be so pleased to spend more time here. Owned by the same folks as Milk & Honey Market (a CP staff favorite), we expect good things to come.
BEST COMEBACK (HOPEFUL)
214 W. Mulberry St.
Ever since late last year, when word spread that the erstwhile Martick’s Restaurant Francais would reopen as a speakeasy-style restaurant, we’ve patiently awaited the time when we can finally get rung into the storied old place and settle in for a classic cocktail and some seasonal fare. That time seemed nigh in July, when the Baltimore liquor board announced it had approved Martick’s license, which includes live entertainment. When it finally does arrive, the ghost of Morris Martick—the original restaurant’s colorful founder, who died in 2011—can be conjured to congratulate his brother Alex, his nephew Steve Shockett, and partner Brooks Bennett on what is sure to be a success.
BEST DINING DEVELOPMENT
300 block of Park Avenue
We love the fact that the block of Park Avenue which used to be the heart of Chinatown (and which still houses Zhongshan and a Chinese market) is now the heart of the new Little Ethiopia, with its two new restaurants, Tabor (328 Park Ave.,  528-7234) and Gojo (317 Park Ave.,  570-0086), a club, Lucy Sports Cafe (312 Park Ave.  527-3362), and a market, Kana Mart (332 Park Ave.,  234-8392). We really wanted to call it “Little Addis,” but we didn’t think it would stick. The market that keeps tempting us to learn Ethiopian cooking. But with Tabor and Gojo just down the block, why would we?
BEST WELCOME TO THE NEIGHBORHOOD
Georgia Soul Food
We let out a collective sob when our favorite soul-food joint, M&J’s on 25th, closed for good last year. Fortunately, we have a newcomer to fill the void and, boy, did they pick up the flag. Georgia Soul Food opened a few months ago and already they’ve got a healthy lunch crowd—and mashed potatoes to die for. But they need to add some barbecue to the menu and work on the cornbread (it’s a little cakey) to reach that M&J worship status. We hope they join the Terra Café across the street as a staple on 25th, the blooming younger sibling of North Avenue. Welcome to the neighborhood, Georgia. Can we get that fried chicken recipe? Please?
BEST OUTDOOR DINING
Waterfront Kitchen has a gorgeous interior, but every time we dine there we want to sit out on the back patio and take in the scenery. Watching boats, runners, and clouds all rolling along past you is a relaxing experience. If you have kids, pointing out various styles of ships is a great way to distract them while you eat Waterfront Kitchen’s wonderful, locally grown fare. The Domino Sugar sign, the Under Armour sign, as well as vistas from Canton and Federal Hill, dot the landscape that you look upon. While it’s not the most picture-perfect of views, it’s Baltimore through and through.
BEST NEW FRANCHISE
Hip Hop Chicken
Hip Hop Chicken started as a local chicken joint in Randallstown back in 2009, but their perfectly fried chicken and fish sparked quick growth throughout Baltimore City and the county. Where they make a killing is the speed at which they operate and the quantity of food you can get for cheap ($65 for 100 wings, $50 for 75). Expect to be in a packed house if you decide to go on Sundays as football fans are hurrying in during halftime and churchgoers are just getting out of service. With their new location on 848 N. Eutaw St., Hip Hop now has 10 locations, in every pocket of Baltimore, and they don’t seem to be slowing down anytime soon.
Andy Nelson's Barbecue
11007 York Road, Cockeysville, (410) 527-1226, andynelsonsbbq.com
Andy Nelson’s is the obvious choice, sure, but when it comes to barbecue, novelty is not what we’re looking for. We’re looking for well-cooked meat, perfectly seasoned in a subtle way. The pulled pork makes those of us from Southern climes pine for home (especially for South Carolinians, with Nelson’s gamecock memorabilia), and the pit beef makes us damn happy to be in Maryland. There is no better way to enjoy the food at Andy Nelson’s than sitting outside the restaurant, listening to live bands such as Caleb Stine and the Brakemen, so we hope they keep offering live music. It gives us a good excuse to go.
BEST CRAB CAKE
Koco's Pub and Grill
4301 Harford Road, (410) 426-3519, kocospub.com
Every restaurant boasts about how good their crab cake is, but none can hold a candle to Koco’s Pub and Grill. So what’s their secret? Special spices? New cooking techniques? Nope, it’s the simplicity that makes their crab cakes so good. No filler, no crazy spices (not even Old Bay), and broiling is how they cook it. The owners swear that it is just the quality of the crab meat they buy, but we think there is a little something in the binding sauce that they’re not telling anyone about. The softball-sized hunk of heaven is a revelation to anyone who’s never had one, so go and get one as soon as you can. It’s a humble place that’s very kid-friendly, so there’s no reason not to.
BEST CRAB HOUSE
4100 North Point Blvd., (410) 477-1975, costasinn.com
When you walk into Costas, you’re greeted by photos of celebrities both local and national—William Donald Schaefer, Earl Weaver, Rick Moranis, the Crypt Keeper—who have cracked crabs at the Dundalk mainstay. The restaurant splits in two: an expansive dining room where they roll out the brown paper and dump pails of Old Bay-caked crustaceans on the table, and a large barroom decorated with historic images of the city. You can feast on crabs at the bar too. The minimum is a half-dozen, but they might let you skate by with an order of three if you’re really jonesin’ for crabs and get ’em in the right size.
Nothing satisfies one’s food lust quite like an Italian deli. With its glass case—so tall it rises to some people’s necks—stocked with fat-flecked, cured Italian meats (prosciutto, salami, capocolla, soppressatta), good ripe cheese (mozzarella both smoked and fresh, provolone, romano, gorgonzola), and assorted oily accouterments (olive tapenade, roasted red peppers, artichokes, pesto), Trinacria is nearly incomparable. We’re not close to scratching the surface on the variety of goods, and we have not yet mentioned the vast selection of wine priced so low one would think college kids composed the clientele. Shop here if you’re hosting a swanky party and want to impress on the cheap.
903 S. Ann St., (410) 342-4000
There are few treats in Baltimore as simple as sitting outside of Bonaparte Breads on a warm fall day while the wind is blowing, the boats are rolling by, and you’re tucking into one of their delicious fruit tarts. Crispy crusts hold fresh, glazed fruit tucked inside a lovely vanilla pastry cream. How do they keep the crust from getting soggy, you ask? They coat the inside of the crust with a thin layer of chocolate, which also plays well with the pastry cream and fruit. This little treat is just one of many of their offerings. The palmieres, pan au chocolat, almond croissants, and their napoleons are all spectacular (not to mention their breads and quiches). If you’re out at Savage Mill, buying antiques, you can stop by their sister store for a quick bite.
BEST FARM-TO-TABLE RESTAURANT
4341 Harford Road, (410) 254-2376, maggiesfarmmd.com
Farm-to-table has become a buzzword used to attract more socially and environmentally conscious diners, and while some restaurants use it as a ploy to fill seats, Maggie’s Farm likes to walk the walk. A valiant ethos and commitment to local farms does not a good restaurant make, though, and the dishes Maggie’s Farm serves are top-notch. From cola-braised short ribs to the daily vegetarian dish, they have something for everyone. Their approach to ingredients, sourced from local farms, co-ops, and bakeries, may seem laid-back and a bit hippy-dippy, but it’s a sincere love of community and tradition that they’re trying to share with their patrons. It’s always exciting when you get the menu and take a look at what they’ve come up with to reflect the season’s bounty.
Sammy’s doesn’t always get the attention it deserves for fine Southern Italian fare, but take one taste of the duck ravioli in a light butter sauce with mushrooms and you might say “arrivederci” to whatever your current favorite is. The service is friendly—especially during off times, when the owner may just bring out various dishes for you to taste, just for the hell of it.
Belvedere Towers Café’
This mostly carryout and delivery joint, practically hidden in the basement of the eponymous apartment complex off Falls Road, has a handful of tables too, and we strongly urge you stay and enjoy the top-notch service here—some of the most gracious we’ve encountered. Moreover, you won’t want to wait to eat the food: Spicy and citrusy chana chaat, delectably creamy chicken korma, and piquant lamb roganjosh are standouts. We’ve never left a drop of sauce behind. Some of that might have to do with the naan, cooked in the café’s pizza oven; it’s chewy, garlicky, buttery, and, in a word, magical.
DINING HALL OF FAME
806 N. Charles St., (410) 752-0311, helmand.com
It’s hard to keep track of all the Helmand’s Best of Baltimore awards: Over the years the Afghani dining room on Charles Street has won “Best First Date Restaurant,” “Best Restaurant for Special Occasions,” “Best Middle Eastern Restaurant” (multiple times), “Best Restaurant for Vegetarians” (multiple times), and, simply, “Best Restaurant” (multiple times). That it has remained among our favorites for so long is a testament to its unmatched combination of exquisite food (the kaddo bowrani, or pan-fried pumpkin, alone deserves a James Beard Award, an Oscar, a Nobel, and an Olympic gold), elegant dining room, and deeply charming service, all for truly shockingly reasonable prices. Baltimore is lucky to have such a dining institution.
725 Aliceanna St., pabuizakaya.com, (410) 223-1460
Pabu bills itself as an “izakaya,” which, in Japan, means the focus is on boozing it up—not that the food is necessarily an afterthought in such places, but the connotation is more of an alleyway hole in the wall where you can both eat and get shit-faced after a hard day’s work. Well, that definitely ain’t Pabu, which is decidedly a destination spot (it’s adjacent to the Four Seasons hotel after all) and a must-visit for seekers of Japanese food in Baltimore. The interior is beautiful, the fish selection and quality immaculate, grilled meats (including not-often-seen offal options) expertly prepared, and the array of saké unmatched in the area. It’s not cheap but not outrageous, and well-nigh affordable during the regular or late-night happy hours. Our only real gripe is about the hours: no lunch and closed Sunday and Monday.
10045 Baltimore National Pike, Ellicott City, (410) 696-2426
It’s a trek to get here, true, but the theater of Honey Pig makes it worthwhile: No matter if only two people are ordering, they’ll still barbecue the spicy porky belly and the beef bulgogi before your eyes, on the circular table’s center console. Also, they’re open 24 hours a day every day, save for Monday, when they take a break from midnight till 11 a.m. Service is lightning-fast, if impersonal, but who can be bothered when it’s 3 a.m. and you have in front of you steaming hangover soup, ladled into a cavernous cast-iron soup bowl, served with the fluffiest steamed egg you can envision.
BEST MEATBALL SUB
846 W. 36th St., (410) 814-0652, luigisdeli.net
Start with half a loaf of crusty, fresh-baked Italian bread. Hollow out the middle. Add pitch-perfect marinara, authentic provolone, and two enormous homemade meatballs, halved, prepared with meat possessing the perfect lean-to-fat ratio. Top it off with grated Parmesan. Toast it. You have the most superb meatball sub imaginable. And it’s so mammoth, you will be able to ration it into enough portions to last you for about a five meals.
Pizzaria y Taqueria Tex Mex Restaurant
3019 E. Baltimore St., (410) 327-7679
When you’re headed east on Baltimore Street or Eastern Avenue, Mexican joints don’t come out of the woodwork—they form the woodwork. It’s hard to make a bad call, but Tex-Mex is THE BEST call. They’ve got every type of taco filling you could want, including beef tongue, goat, cactus, al pastor, chorizo, et al., all served atop two corn tortillas every bit as tasty and fresh as Tortilleria Sinaloa; it’s cheaper and less crowded here, though. But, really, what you have to try is a quesadilla, folded in an extra-thick tortilla that holds up to the generous filling of whatever you choose (go with the carnitas), topped off with crisp shreds of iceberg lettuce, drizzled with near-white queso fresco, then sprinkled with grated cheese. It’s a lot of salt, admittedly, but our world changed when we ate the quesadilla here. And we are better for it.
5132 Belair Road, (410) 483-4847
Baltimore’s getting to be a pretty respectable town for pizza variety, from plain to fancy, and the competition is fierce when it’s time to order. This time around, we’re phoning in for pickup at Gil’s for one of their solid, soul-satisfying, one-size-fits-all (12-inch) old school pies, cheesy masterpieces on well-turned dough, offered with all the usual fixin’s, except you might not be able to tell, since Gil’s puts their toppings under the piles of cheese. Gil’s also offers a freshly half-baked pie you can finish in your own oven, but that’s not our style, since the aroma of a just-baked Gil’s pie usually has us opening the box on the drive home.
58 W. Biddle St., (443) 708-1112, alladinkabob.com
When we say Alladin Kabob is our favorite Pakistani restaurant, people usually look at us like, What? And, honestly, the word “kabob” doesn’t help. So think about it this way: Take the best of Indian cooking and (a little bit less of) the best of Middle Eastern cuisine and mix them together, and you have Alladin Kabob. The goat curry (on the all-you-can-eat $7.99 lunch buffet, which is addictive) is a perfect example and one of the most flavorful dishes you are likely to find anywhere in town.
So why separate out sushi from Japanese food as a whole? Well, sometimes you just gotta get your sushi fix with minimal pomp and circumstance, and this spot in Fells always does the trick. A quick glance at the menu might be a bit of a letdown, since it’s pretty much boilerplate. That’s not to knock Nanami’s ability to crank out the usual suspects of tuna, salmon, and, of course, makizushi (rolls) with, like, 5 million different things jammed in ’em. What distinguishes Nanami are their weekly special offerings, which often include live scallop, live uni, and hard-to-find fish like kampachi and fatty yellowtail. Extra care is taken with these ingredients—the scallop’s various body sections are often served in separate, complimentary preparations, while the uni is often served in its spectacularly spiky exoskeleton. Moreover, prices on these delicacies are surprisingly reasonable. One caveat: Cooked food is not really their forte. Just sayin’.
We knew this place back when they were a cozy grotto located beneath Donna’s Café in Mount Vernon. With great service and a reliable pad Thai, they were a staple. Then the fire happened. Now, they’ve reopened in the old Tack Factory in Fells Point. In this stylish and airy space, they’ve left the grotto behind. The food and service are still good, but if you want to invite 20 of your closest friends out for a fabulous bowl of tom yum goong now, you’re in luck. Curries are flavorful, trending to the mild side of spicy. Please don’t leave without trying their deliciously sweet and coconuty mango with sticky rice. It’s transcendent.
7104 Minstrel Way, Columbia, (410) 381-3188, anloirestaurant.com
For an unassuming restaurant in an ugly shopping strip (seriously, how many fast-food chains can you pack into one little strip?), An Loi is a gem. The important question to ask when going to a Vietnamese place is: “Is the broth any good?” The answer is a resounding “YES!” It’s light and flavorful, with hints of cardamom and lemongrass, perfect for the freshly sliced accoutrements provided. An Loi is very accommodating for families and vegetarians alike. It’s a packed house on the weekends, though, so be prepared to wait—on the upside, the service is swift and friendly, so the wait will most likely be pleasant.
1500 Reisterstown Road #211, (410) 415-7001, goldbergsbagels.net
If you’ve lived in New York for any period of time and earned your Bagel Credentials, you know they come in two types: The denser, doughy variety is classic, the kind made by NYC standard-bearer H&H Bagels, who distribute their goods to every decent deli and bodega in the city. The other is the lighter, more cake-y variety, and while there are a few New York places that do this well (Absolute Bagels on 107th Street, for one), it is generally the domain of your standard Safeway, Giant, Dunkin’ Donuts crap. In Baltimore, the closest you’ll get to the real deal is Goldberg’s in Pikesville, where they bake awesomely dense, fresh bagels every day. It’s kosher, so don’t go ordering bacon, egg, and cheese on your bagel. You don’t need all that anyway. Try the everything bagel—crucially, they put the seasonings on both sides (come on Baltimore, how hard is that?)—with plain cream cheese and maybe a slice of tomato. If you go plain, get it toasted with lox spread. Damn, that’s good. And remember, Goldberg’s doesn’t roll (dough) on shabbos (Saturday).
Peter's Inn at Fells Point Farmers Market
504 S. Ann St., (410) 675-7313, petersinn.com
Few things smack your senses like the smell of bacon being cooked. Follow your nose on any given Saturday morning through the Fells Point Farmers Market, and you will find Bud Tiffany of Peter’s Inn and a wacky sidekick furiously frying up the bacon for the best BLT you will ever stuff in your pie hole. Locals know that tomatoes peak in August, along with peaches. Bud selects the best of these sweet tomatoes from Richardson Farms in Middle River, Tribeca Oven bakery baguettes, real Hellmann’s mayonnaise, and North Country Smokehouse bacon for these killer sandwiches. Do yourself a solid and get one before the tomatoes go out of season and Bud packs up the stand till next year.
BEST BEER DESSERT
Shake a Leg, Osteria Da Amedeo
OK, this is basically a root beer float minus, uh, the root. The Shake a Leg gets its name from Heavy Seas Peg Leg Imperial Stout, to which is added vanilla ice cream and—this is an Italian joint after all—some amaretto. Seriously, stop scowling. Unwrinkle your nose. It works, thanks to the stout’s coffee and cocoa undertones, which pair well with the creamy vanilla. The amaretto shot provides that extra kick of sweetness. And speaking of kicks, Peg Leg packs an 8 percent-ABV punch. Think of the dessert as a “beer” best shared with two spoons.
BEST BREAKFAST SANDWICHES
On the Hill Café
The quality of food at the recently spiffed-up Bolton Hill staple hasn’t wavered at all since it opened almost 10 years ago. George Dailey, the owner of On the Hill and the erstwhile Centros Tapas Bar in Federal Hill, sources eggs from Springfield Farm in Sparks; the well-kept chickens there produce superior eggs, in taste and texture. So whether you get a plain ol’ egg sandwich with cheese ($3.75) or one with spinach and cheese ($4.50) or one with meat and cheese ($4.75), the resultant sammy beats out any competitors for this price. On the Hill’s bread and cheese options give you room for variety too, but at the end (beginning?) of the day, we recommend their havarti and sourdough.
Kings Garden Café
218 N. Charles St., (410) 576-8400
If they don’t have it, you don’t need it. The buffet at King’s Garden Café covers over half the room in its Hopkins Plaza space. It changes from breakfast to lunch and has ample vegetarian selections, several cuisine types, as well as fantastic fresh fruit choices that go beyond the standard melon-ball fare. Kings has pretty much every food choice you can think of in one form or another. Where else are you going to find a cut-it-yourself roast beef shoulder, super-spicy jerk chicken, tofu sushi, or a full-on dessert bar? The food is charged by the pound, which shames a few of us into smaller portions.
Bacon. Sticky. Spicy. Bacon. We cannot emphasize this enough. Still, this award is not merely for best bacon—it’s for best burger. And we realize that our Burger Bracket back in June determined that Abbey Burger Bistro was the best burger in town by 15 votes, but we have to quibble, dear readers: we’ll pass on Abbey’s expansive checklist of toppings and opt for Hamilton Tavern’s singular Crosstown burger instead. Truly, we will cross town for the ultra-rich combination of Roseda beef, horseradish cheddar, that optional perfectly fried egg, and the must-order brown sugar-glazed spicy bacon, all sandwiched between the most wonderful sesame seed-covered challah bread-like bun.
BEST CAMDEN YARDS FOOD
Korean tacos at TAKO Korean BBQ stand
Section 53 at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, 333 W. Camden St., (410)685-9800
Stadium food has been slowly emerging from its traditional hotdog/chicken tenders/fries lockdown, and things at Camden Yards have gotten interestingly delicious at Tako Korean BBQ. We now head directly for Section 53 to get ourselves a cardboard tray of deliciously drippy Korean tacos. They come in two flavors: chicken with Asian slaw or bulgogi beef with kimchi. And though both are quite tasty, we favor the beef. Chili-powered kimchi complements rather than overwhelms the feisty, sweetly spiced, barbecued steak strips, all stuffed into a tender corn pancake/tortilla envelope. (Bonus points: The taco “shell” is gluten-free!)
Zhongshan, located in the heart of what was once Baltimore’s Chinatown, has a lot going for it. There are the lunch specials ($6.95 for a huge plate), the bowls of cold-killing soup, the superior ingredients, and the fact that it’s a family-owned restaurant in which, outside of lunch hours, you are unlikely to see another gringo. We could write about any one of those and Zhongshan would still be the winner. But it is the dim sum that makes us wake up drooling in the middle of the night. Chinese small plates are a rarity in this town, but there is nothing better than the steamed fun gor (a pork-and-shrimp dumpling), or the lotus- or bean-paste buns, or the vegetarian rice crepes. If you’re a little more adventurous, the chicken feet with black-bean sauce and the beef tripe with ginger and scallion just might change your life. Best of all, each dish item is somewhere between $2.95 and $3.75, so you really don’t have to choose. And we swear, this is the year we’re going to get the $350 Chinese New Year special.
BEST FRIED PICKLES
737 S. Broadway, (410) 675-6297, maxs.com
Fried pickles and beer bars seem to go hand in hand: Alonso’s makes them crinkle-cut chip-style, fried in tempura; Mahaffey’s does chips too, but the breading is thicker and spicier, the pickles thinner. It’s fitting that Max’s—the undisputable king of beer bars in Baltimore—serves the best fried pickles we’ve encountered, not just in beer bars, but in any establishment with a kitchen in the city. The four thick spears that come with a (at $8.29, slightly too dear) order are covered in perfectly seasoned breadcrumbs, with a side of spicy aioli made with cayenne pepper, presented on top of a bed of freshly fried sea-salt (you can see the flecks of salt) chips generously sprinkled with fresh dill—the piece de resistance of the dish. We like ’em so much, we order two at a time.
BEST GANKING OF CP REVIEW
34 E. Lanvale St., (410) 727-7243
We loved the Café Sage, the thoughtful hyper-local pastries-cum-light fare coffee shop near Penn Station, calling our review “Food as Haiku.” Everything there was purposely slow, careful, and intense. One of the managers, Dane Nester, even cultivated his own honey for the project. Well, almost immediately after the review, Nester and his partner got the boot from the space’s owner, who kept the name but not the charm, or virtually anything else—except a big, blown-up copy of our review in the window. Just so you know, the food is not at all the same. And we feel like it is dishonest on the new managers’ part to pretend otherwise.
Tthe Bun Shop
239 W. Read St., (410) 989-2033
Man, used to be when we got homesick for our backpacking years, we would have to look hard for a place in Baltimore that could conjure up the memories of a café in Central Europe. Thank you, Bun Shop. Thank you for the gilded ceiling beams which make us pine for Vienna. It’s almost hypnotizing to watch the pieces of gold leaf on the ceiling fans whirl in the air. The rest of Bun Shop’s interior is dark, but the gold brightens the space, little natural light needed. It’s like sitting in a Gustav Klimt painting. Oh yeah—and the buns and the Vietnamese coffees are pretty good too, and we love the super-late hours.
BEST HOME FRIES
The Lunch Box
102 W. 36th St., (410) 235-4994
When we discovered these home fries in the Avenue’s lone greasy spoon, we abandoned all other breakfast haunts: We had found the one. We’ve spent many mornings trying to figure out the secret to these almost-caramelized spuds with perfectly crisped exteriors. Finally we got the scoop—they’re cooked three times: boiled, sauteed with onion and margarine, then griddled just before serving. Even knowing the process, one couldn’t replicate these heavenly potatoes. Plus: fluffy scrambled eggs, addictive corned beef hash, efficient service.
Oak Hill Honey
“Alley-to-table” doesn’t have quite the same ring as “farm-to-table,” still, we think it’s rad that Oak Hill Honey is made in beehives in an alleyway in Baltimore City. Kickass cook Dane Nester is the beekeeper behind the operation, but you can get it at Milk & Honey, the Waverly farmers market, and we hope at a new restaurant run by Nester (since he lost Café Sage).
BEST HOT DOG
Section 46 at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, (201) 658-1812, koshersportsinc.com
Conventional wisdom dictates that any hot dog tastes better when consumed at a baseball game. Conventional wisdom also dictates that a kosher hot dog tastes better than any other hot dog in the world. Combine the two and what you end up with is Kosher Sports LLC. The stand is located outside Section 46 at Camden Yards, and during any home game, hundreds of fans line up to eat the only certified kosher food in the ballpark. They cost EXACTLY the same as the other hot dogs containing God-knows-what sold around the park. Why anyone would eat anything else is beyond us. As an added bonus, religious Jews gather at the stand to pray in the middle of the fifth inning. With all that going for them, you would think the Orioles’ pitching would be better.
BEST ICE CREAM
Taharka Bros. Ice Cream
It’s always nice to support local companies. Even better when the company has a mission to improve the community. And better still when said company puts out a damn good product. Check, check, and check. Taharka Bros. use not only local ingredients (e.g. Baugher’s peaches), but also work with a fair-trade initiative in Haiti (that supplies them with cacao and vanilla) to come up with sometimes-crazy flavors like star anise and candied fennel, orange clove sorbet, and the always-popular honey graham. The ice cream always has distinct, punctuated flavors, of course no artificial anything, and an exceedingly smooth, soft texture thanks to just the right amount of overrun (or the amount of air whipped into the final product). Look out for the fruit of their recently successful Kickstarter campaign—an ice cream truck/mobile library/hangout spot hitting the street this month.
BEST ICE CREAM SHOP
801 W. 36th St., (410) 814-0493, thecharmery.com
Since they opened in the thick of summer, just as a heatwave set in, we’ve seen lines snaked around the Charmery’s colorful tables and chairs on the regular. For good reason. Lauren and David Alima, the couple who own the shop, have been churning out custom-tailored one-offs on a weekly, if not daily, basis that play on local themes: a chocolate Union Duckpin Pale Ale flavor with grapefruit; “Crunch Davis” with sweet cream ice cream with orange jimmies and Nestle Crunch crumbles; a collaborative coffee-bean concoction with Spro. We look forward to more of the same (but different) in the ice cream off-season, but we’ll always be tempted too by the Old Bay caramel Berger cookies and cream flavors.
BEST JUICE BAR
When the Yabba Pot closed in late 2011, it was a blow to the veggie/health-food community in the city, so when we heard about this cozy little spot opening up just a few doors down, there was some justifiable excitement. We weren’t disappointed. Grind House owner Ayo Hogans, a veteran of Yabba Pot, has stocked her spot with a variety of vegan and vegetarian items (our favorite, the Charles Villager wrap, combines hummus, avocado, and mixed veggies with your choice of dressing—we go for Goddess for extra hippie points). But the main attraction is the variety of freshly squeezed juice drinks and smoothies. We especially recommend the hot shot, which is packed with spicy ginger, carrot, apple, and lime. They have a relaxing environment, and the staff is friendly and attentive, so it’s a rewarding place to check in and recharge.
For a long time, Baltimore fans were the lonely hearts of the NFL. After our longtime “lover,” the Colts, ran out on us in the middle of a winter night to shack up with another CITY, we hit the personals. “Big city seeking big team to watch on cold nights. Must love crabs and Natty Boh. Is it you?” was all we asked from our potential suitors. Our responses were few and far between. We cried for years. We went on a really bad date with the USFL Stars, and our one successful date was just blah, with the CFL’s Stallions, whose championship trophy (which we won) is even called the Grey Cup. Finally, when we were ready to throw ourselves off lovers’ leap, the Ravens came and we were perfect together. Kibby’s, on Wilkens Avenue, seems to have kept a physical record of our entire football history in a locked case. Now we can visit and laugh at a Stars helmet, marvel at the get-all melancholy over the signed Colts memorabilia, or stoke out at the signed Super Bowl ball from the 2001 Ravens team. Oh yeah. There’s some awesome Orioles memorabilia too. But, really, none of that would matter if it weren’t for Kibby’s delicious shrimp salad (which won “Best Shrimp Salad” in 2006 and “Best Jumbo Jumbo Shrimp Salad” in 2007), the soft-shell crabs, the friendly, funny bartenders, or the crowd of retirees who sit over cheap buckets of beer and welcome you like a long-lost cousin.
Banana Milkshake, Lost City Diner
1730 N. Charles St., (410) 547-5678
If nothing else, Lost City sure knows how to create anticipation, even if it’s at torturous extremes. After Club Charles’ owner, Joy Martin, purchased the space in 2000, she didn’t open the retro-themed diner until August 2011, only to suddenly close in February 2012 for “renovations” with a promissory poster to return in fall 2012. Well, as we waited and waited for months on end, they quietly (and fittingly) reopened under new ownership on April Fool’s Day this year. The restaurant, decked out in old sci-fi ornaments, still looks the same and still has pretty good food, but one thing in particular seems to have amplified its taste since the first time around: the banana shake. You can see waiters blend the shake at the bar, and with the diner open past midnight on weekends, you can grab one after getting hammered at Club Chuck or catching a film at the Charles.
Fleet Street Kitchen
Offal gets a bad wrap. Most people think of it as a way to play culinary chicken with their friends or live out their own Andrew Zimmern fantasy, but in reality, offal is just damn good food. Fleet Street Kitchen understands this and goes out of its way to create luscious and lip-smacking goodies to expand your idea of what good food really is. The bar menu at FSK offers a “pig face and pickles” section, where you can choose crispy pigs ears or soft and delightfully gelatinous snouts that are matched up with fantastic house-cured pickles. The chef’s selection will give you an opportunity to sample multiple kinds of offal, so go that route if you’ve never experienced the best parts of the pig.
BEST PLACE TO GO FOR LUNCH DURING JURY DUTY
MeKong Delta Café
105 W. Saratoga St., (410) 244-8677
This category is just another way to say: You should eat at Mekong Delta. Except that we kind of don’t want you to, because it is small and we like to be able to sit there and have the owners’ kids walk up to our tables with water before the pho comes. But seriously, if you’ve got jury duty, especially in the winter, you deserve it.
BEST REASON TO EAT STANDING UP
Haute Dog Fabulous Franks
We sit on our ass all day at the office, so it’s never a big deal for us to take lunch standing up, and the Haute Dog, in its garage-y stall on Falls is our fave place to not pull up a chair and tuck in to one (OK, sometimes two) of their inventive and crazy-delicious tube steaks such as the roasted garlic chicken dog with hummus, the reuben dog, or a smoked country sausage and barbecued pork dog. Our go-to pup is the standard “signature” Black Angus hot dog with tomato-and-onion jam and dijon mustard, but don’t pass up a chance to devour a duck dog with peach-apricot compote(!?!) if you see it offered as a special. If you really need to sit, don’t worry, Haute Dog is good neighbors with the nice folks at the Bonjour Bakery Café, and you can park it on their porch while you down your dog.
BEST SAUSAGE OUTSIDE THE BALLPARK BEFORE AN O'S GAME
Corner of South Sharp and West Conway streets, behind the Convention Center
You’ll be tempted to bite off either end of the Italian sausage protruding from the Italian hoagie bun after it’s handed to you at Wild Bill’s, but it’ll burn your tongue and might squirt your eye with hot sausage-juice if you snap into it too soon. It’s best just to fold the foil over the top and wait until you’ve grabbed a beer and found your seat. The piping-hot freshness and larger size are just two reasons why it makes more sense to get your sausage, brats, and/or burgers here first. The tasty Roma Sausages served at Wild Bill’s are cut from the rope (not link), accounting for the larger size. They’re also cooked on a ribbed grill (not flat) and carefully turned until they’re crisp and evenly cooked. Oh yeah, and at $5, they also cost about half as much as the ones inside.
BEST SLOW FOOD
101 E. 25th St., (410) 777-5277, theterracafe.com
Overall, there’s a lot to love about Terra Café. As a food joint, it has one the best atmospheres for a small family grub session. It encourages the arts with frequent open-mic events, and the employees are really nice people. And the menu enhances everything: Opt for the yard bird panini if spicy is your thing; the chicken wings are delicious; and the daily specials typically amaze us. If you’re ever lucky enough to find the jerk fish wrap written on the board, grab it. There’s one glaring issue with Terra Café, though—IT TAKES FOREVER TO GET YOUR FOOD. If you think you can avoid waiting 30 minutes for a wing platter by calling ahead of time, think again. More than likely, you’ll still have to wait an additional 15 minutes even after placing the order on the phone 20 minutes ahead of time.
BEST SUNDAY BRUNCH BUFFET
The Ambassador Dining Room
Perhaps it wouldn’t occur to you to recover from your Saturday-night bender in the elegant white-tablecloth environs of the Ambassador, but for a flat $25, you’re entitled to as many hair-of-the-dog make-your-own Bloody Marys and mimosas as you like, as well as an omelet bar and waffle station, plus an array of classic Indian dishes, including chana, chicken tikka masala, dal makhani, and fish curry. Save room for dessert too. And in the spacious dining room and patio, there’s nary a crying baby or a noisy throng to exacerbate your headache
7894 Washington Blvd., Elkridge, (410) 799-0001, rrtaqueria.com
Walking into this closet-sized eatery that’s housed in a side room connected to a gas station in Elkridge, your first thought will not be, These are gonna be the best tacos I’ve ever had. Somehow though, that’s exactly what you get. The setting becomes quaint after a few visits, and the parking sucks, but those tacos are still as good as the first time. The chorizo, lengua (tongue), and the cueritos (pork skin) tacos are great but even the chicken or beef tacos are worth eating a few dozen of. Make sure to order one of their delicious agua frescas to wash down your tacos. A new location just opened in Perry Hall, but go to the original your first time for the experience.
BEST TONGUE IN YOUR MOUTH
Tongue in Jelly Sandwich at Sophia's Place, Braodway Market
1640 Aliceanna St., (410) 342-6105, bpmarkets.com
A lot of folks don’t want to tangle with tongue, but we’re not here to debate which part of a cow you want to eat, because it’s lunchtime and we’re hungry. At Sophia’s Place, they stick out their jellied tongue, sliced paper-thin, so it comes across as sort of a super-mild stop between brisket and corned beef, slipped between two slices of your choice of bread (we suggest rye), done up nicely with lettuce, tomato, and the perfect complementary condiment, a tart and tangy horseradish mustard. Don’t get it twisted. Bite this tongue.
BEST TWEE COFFEE EXPERIENCE
While we’re sick to death of the Starbucking of America, the last thing Baltimore needs is a place that treats coffee like the second coming. Enter Artifact, the Woodberry restaurant/coffee spot that tries be Brooklyn on the Jones Falls. Granted, the coffee at Artifact is very good. But coffee isn’t the Holy Grail, and that’s where Artifact jumps the shark. Your pour-over coffee choices are described by the waitstaff as if they were describing a lover (“spicy, nutty, full-bodied”), then delivered to your table, made of distressed wooden planks (Artifact looks like Martha Stewart’s country-barn fantasy). Finishing up your Triunfo-bean brew, your bill comes stuffed into a battered vintage spice tin. Lighten up, folks, it’s just coffee!
BEST VEGGIE PATTY
Jack and Zach Food
Local locavores Jack and Zach do what not many restaurants are apparently willing to do: make their own veggie patties. They’re fresh, packed with local ingredients, and served with pickled onions. You can choose from original, curry, or black bean. Try all of them if you’re a connoisseur of the delicious vegetable burger patty. It’s not the only reason to visit this offbeat café, but in our humble opinion it is the best reason. If their downtown location is not convenient, you may pick up their patties at Milk & Honey Market in Mount Vernon, the Daily Grind in Fells Point, and Whimz Café near Johns Hopkins Hospital.
Old Bay Wings at The Dizz
Call this a juke right when you think we’re going to go left, but hear us out. The iBar has the best wings in Baltimore. This is without question, as evidenced by their Best of Baltimore wins in 2009 and 2010. But as the Buffalo Bills paraphernalia on wall connotes, iBar prides itself on serving up an authentic upstate New York product. They have Old Bay wings, sure, but if we want the best wing covered in the beloved local seasoning, we’re heading to the Dizz, where the wings are nice and meaty, plenty crispy (no soggy chicken skin, please. Get outta here with that), and have just the right amount of spice. The last variable in that equation can be a bit off now and again, but there’s no question the Dizz delivers some of the best and most consistent Old Bay wings around.