I was not a born road-tripper. For a kid with chronic motion sickness, piling into the car with extended family for an afternoon’s drive held no pleasure, only anxiety and annoyance. The road trips of my childhood smelled of my father’s cigar smoke, my grandmother’s (and mother’s and grandfather’s) cologne, and, inevitably, the stale vomit that had absorbed into the tan vinyl upholstery from the last time I had to squeeze into the back seat of a hot Chrysler to ride out to the country to look at the acreage my father had bought in hopes of building there some day. My reward for not throwing up (or my solace if I did) was a black raspberry ice cream cone from Hillcrest, a scruffy little café on Norrisville Road off of Jarrettsville Pike.
As soon as my dad parked, my sister and I would peel ourselves from the hot vinyl and race to the counter ahead of the adults. We were predictable in our choices—said black raspberry for me, chocolate chip with jimmies for my sister, strawberry, peach, and butter pecan for the grown-ups. Taking our cones back outside, we’d lean against the scratchy split rail fence and call to the cows who wisely ignored us. After the final crumb of cone was eaten or shared with the birds, my parents would go back into the shop and return a few minutes later with brown paper half-gallon tubs of vanilla wrapped in newspaper to keep it cool on the ride home, which inexplicably seemed so much shorter than the ride there.
On a whim, I bought black raspberry at the farmers market a few weeks ago, wondering if I would still like it or if I would associate the flavor with being carsick. Fortunately, I did and I didn’t. I was, however, surprised that the color was so violet-purple and that it tasted as I remembered—sweet and musky—and how that taste conjured hot vinyl, the bristly hair on my grandfather’s arms, WCBM playing best-forgotten AM hits from Exile and the Atlanta Rhythm Section.
There have been many road trips since then, and I connect most of them to food. There was the Bel Air boyfriend with whom I spent one summer taking long car rides across the state and who introduced me to the Arctic Circle in Churchville. There was the boyfriend, now husband, who drove me cross country when I was 23 to meet his Iowa family. We left at 5 a.m. one May morning and stopped at Tootie’s Diner in Columbus, Ohio for a fried breakfast that tasted of adventure. That was 22 years ago. Today, the driving portion of our trips to Iowa include the grocers in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin for beer and spectacular cherry butter, lunch in Madison (which really deserves its own essay), and one last ice cream from the shop in Prairie du Chien before crossing over the Mississippi River into Iowa where Maid-Rites and pork tenderloins await us.
For me, fine dining can be a challenge, a tense amalgam of expectation and performance, of price-quality inconsistencies, of special occasions, their obligations, and their letdowns. Road-trip food joints offer the unexpected. They taste of place. They taste of particularity. They invite you in to a community through their food but also through the folks who cook and eat there. Granted, sometimes sentiment makes road food taste better (Was Hillcrest ice cream really that good? I think so, maybe), but there’s also an authenticity in food that comes from being “along the way.” And in the 10 years that I’ve been writing about food in Maryland (and the 30-plus years I’ve lived here), I’ve been lucky to find a few gems that merit a “just because.” Here’s a very small sampling for you. Tell me some of your favorites, please.
- En route to Ocean City -
Beach to Bay Seafood
12138 Carol Lane, Princess Anne, (410) 651-5400
You get the feeling Rich Evanusa knows every customer who walks through the glass doors of Beach to Bay Seafood, his storefront restaurant/carryout adjacent to the Food Lion shopping center off of Route 13 in Princess Anne. From behind the counter in a buzz cut and short sleeves he greets the local pastor in for a late lunch, the University of Maryland Eastern Shore students, and the corrections officer coming off shift who gets his fried-whiting sandwich to go. The Orioles (in season) play on the television mounted high in one corner of the room next to posters for the UMES men’s basketball team (or the women’s volleyball or bowling teams, again, depending on the season). A cold case on one side of the counter offers Dr. Brown’s sodas; a variety of the day’s catch are on display on the other side. A white board reminds folks that homemade brownies and rice pudding are available along with the day’s specials and homemade sides. Ah, the sides.
You order at the counter. If you’re me, you make a deal with your dining partner that you get to order the fried oysters, the homemade stewed tomatoes, and the potato salad, zingy with mustard and without hardboiled eggs, and he must order the grouper (okay, fried crab, if he insists), pickled beets, and whatever starch he wants (usually macaroni salad, but occasionally fries). He usually splurges on crab soup (regular, though there’s cream of, as well). Neither of us is much of a hush-puppy eater.
We settle at a table covered in oilcloth and wait until Evanusa motions that our food is ready at the counter, and we carry back to the table two red plastic trays with two black plastic plates sectioned so the tomatoes don’t dampen the oysters. When we’re finished, each of us eating off the other’s plate then going back to our own, Evanusa brings me rice pudding. He asks about our jobs, tells us about his grandchildren, the new manufacturing business he’s getting off the ground so he can sell his marinades and seasonings to grocery stores. He talks sports (if you want to know anything about the history of club football at UMES, formerly Maryland State, Evanusa is your man).
Beach to Bay is a family operation. If Evanusa isn’t there, chances are his wife Diane, or one of his daughters or his son-in-law, is. The whole concept is simple—fresh seafood, sandwiches, no alcohol, no frills—but it’s still one of those storefront seafood stores/restaurants/takeaways you wish Baltimore had more of for both its food and its hospitality. From Salisbury, take Route 13 for thirteen miles south to Princess Anne. I don’t need to say it but I will: It’s worth the detour.
Open Monday to Saturday, from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.
1195 Jacob Tome Memorial Highway, Port Deposit, (443) 731-1889, prostrestaurant.com
“Are you from here or there?” asks our server, Henry, a tall young man who seems entirely comfortable in his red checked shirt and leather lederhosen. He has already greeted us in German and taken our orders in a mixture of German and English, but it still takes a minute to understand that “here” means the U.S. (and not Port Deposit, where we are dining) and “there” is “Germany.”
For a city once overflowing with German immigrants, it’s remarkably difficult to find high-quality German food in the region (notwithstanding Christine Seiler’s excellent German dinners at Duesenberg’s Café and Grill in Catonsville). Prost began as a tiny spot in Aberdeen before moving to its current location in Cecil County (technically in Port Deposit, but more like halfway between Port Deposit and Rising Sun) in 2012. Although the food isn’t quite as on target as Seiler’s, it’s still the real deal, and the few shortcomings are made up for in atmosphere.
Outside, Prost is dark, sprawling, and forgettable. Inside it’s all light wood, a bit of taxidermy, and a lot of barware (it is called Prost after all). The male servers wear lederhosen; the women, dirndls with bright tennis shoes. There’s also a spacious screened-in porch for cooler night. An accordion player saunters through the dining room and bar, and occasionally the chatter of English and German stops for the crowd to exhort, “Eins, Zwei, G’Suffa!”
Prost draws Germans and German-Americans who crave schnitzel and sauerbraten (both excellent), but its location makes it an easy place for the military families who served in Germany and now live in and around Aberdeen to revisit foods from abroad. Prost offers currywurst, Fliegende Schweinchen (hamhocks with dipping sauce), sauerkraut balls, and potato pancakes. I was in comfort-food heaven with a Jäger-Schnitzel, the pork pounded thin and fried crisp with creamy mushroom gravy and housemade spaetzle, yellow with egg yolk. Maybe even better was the Kassler Ripperl plate, a pleasantly chewy smoked pork chop served with warm potato salad and kraut with a sour kick. If you’re used to the version of sauerbraten (sour beef) often found in Baltimore kitchens and restaurants where the gravy is made with gingersnaps which both thicken and give a touch of sweetness, Prost’s version may be a little too tart for you, but red cabbage ups the plate’s sweet ante a little. Both the sour beef and the Rindsrouladen (beef rolls stuffed with bacon, mustard, pickle, and onion) come with two dumplings: one, the usual potato; the other, the not as often seen, bread. I like both, but if you’re used to the slippery, light potato dumpling, the bread dumpling may seem a little heavy, even though it really isn’t.
Prost’s German beer list requires some careful study, and to our delight, there are some decent tap offerings from breweries like Bitburger, Erdinger, Schneider, Aventinus, and Weihenstephaner. Desserts are house-made by owner Renate Baruschka (her husband Richard makes the spaetzle), but who has room?