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?
Open Wednesday to Sunday, from Noon to 9 p.m.
Trappe Lions’ “World Famous Chicken Barbecue Event”
Route 50, Trappe, Third Saturday of the month, schedule posted on the Town of Trappe website, trappemd.net
These are the directions Lion Drake Ferguson gives for finding his organization’s self-named “World Famous Chicken Barbecue Event”: “We are at the stop light in Trappe, past the High’s Dairy store about 1/2 mile beyond the 73 mile marker.” For Baltimoreans, this means take the Bay Bridge west and stay on Route 50. You’ll see small red-and-blue signs advertising the barbecue. Then you’ll see smoke. Across from the Valero on the eastbound side of the highway are the Lions. A 12-foot grill is their kitchen, a pair of tables set up under tents is their prep and pay area, and a table under the towering pecan tree is the dining room.
If you’re like me, you always wondered about the chicken but you never stopped because you had to get somewhere NOW. Until you didn’t. And you stopped. And you tried Eastern Shore-style barbecue chicken, which isn’t red or sweet or sticky, but just a simple mix of vinegar and oil and poultry seasoning that somehow makes it taste like it was marinated in lemons. There is no neat way to eat it. You will be wearing the juice of this chicken.
A bag of chips and a soda come with your half-chicken meal. The Lions recently added fresh cut boardwalk-style fries and who can say no to that? Occasionally, the men add pit beef to the menu (and if they do, you must try it—rare and heavenly).
The Lions sell around 200 meals at each monthly barbecue with most of the proceeds going towards one of the local charities they support. A meal is a small investment in the community and your stomach—or as Ferguson says with flourish: “For just eight bucks you can hear the angels sing.” Amen.
- Southern Maryland -
WJ Dent & Sons
44584 Tall Timbers Road, Tall Timbers, (301) 994-0772, wjdent.com
In physical makeup, Andy Dent calls to mind the late Artie Donovan. But this huge man speaks softly, calmly, and you get the impression he never loses his patience—which is good because he often has a knife in his hand. Andy and his brother David Dent are the folks behind WJ Dent & Sons/Chief’s Bar, a small grocery store/deli/bar in the tiny town of Tall Timbers in St. Mary’s County. The Dents’ father began working at the business that preceded WJ Dent & Sons in the ’60s and went on to purchase the shop and change the name to reflect his own in the ’70s, at about the same time that his son Andy started providing the store with the Southern Maryland specialty known as stuffed ham. (The brothers Dent assumed ownership of the store in 2010 after their father died.)
Which brings us back to the knife. With a terrifying deftness, Andy can slice and gouge and de-bone a 20-pound corned (aka brined) ham and fill the pockets he’s cut in it with the stuffing, a pungent mixture of kale, cabbage, onion, ground red pepper, crushed red pepper, black pepper, celery seed, and mustard seed. “The flakes give it color. It looks a lot like Christmas,” Andy says. The ham is wrapped in cheesecloth and put on to boil for what seems like forever, but is actually four hours. He does this at night because it stinks to high heaven. “You can smell it on 249.” After the boil, the hams are thoroughly cooled and ready for slicing.
This is what makes a stuffed ham sandwich: cold, thinly sliced stuffed ham, a swirl of pink flesh and green filling, and white sandwich bread. Simple, but pretty great, and not a little spicy. Chief’s Bar will sell you that same sandwich or stuffed-ham pizza or any number of daily stuffed-ham specials. If you like dark bars and classic rock, try your stuffed ham there. Me, I like a sandwich to take with me down route 240 and pull over at St. George’s Island Landing to watch the osprey.
Open Sunday to Thursday, From 8:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Friday and Saturday from 8:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Bear Creek BBQ
20294 Piney Point Road, Callaway, (301) 994-1030, bearcreekbarbq.com
Since 1997, you’ve been able to smell Bear Creek BBQ before you see it. Until about a year and a half ago, you could follow your nose to the red building on Point Lookout Road with the fire pit behind the front counter and a zoo of taxidermied animals (no lions or tigers but a bear, oh my) in the dining room to feast on a barnyard of smoked meats. Several years ago, a fire put Angie and Curtis Shreve out of business temporarily. After rebuilding in the same space, they continued to make chili-and-frito pie, cook down collards, and conjure macaroni and cheese. But last year, landlord disputes caused a shift in location and how they did business. You can still smell the barbecue; it’s just that it’s now coming from a carryout on Piney Point Road across from the Callaway post office.
The barbecue is still first-rate. Pork and beef come pulled, sliced, or minced in a style reminiscent of Curtis’s home state of Texas. The Shreves also smoke ham and sausage, turkey and chicken. Pork ribs will stick to yours. I know they offer crabcakes and fried fish too, but I just can’t get past the barbecue.
If you attend the yearly Maryland Traditions Folklife Festival at the Creative Alliance in June, you may have sampled Bear Creek’s wares (Full disclosure: I was involved in the food portion of the festival for several years and invited Bear Creek to be a vendor). Its black, mobile barbecue truck and smoker make an appearance nearly every year. Until then, order a pulled pork or minced beef and pull up a picnic bench. Inhale the sweet smoke, enjoy the Callaway wildlife, and know that Curtis’ stuffed animals have retired to his garage-cum-man cave. ν
Open Tuesday to Saturday from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Sunday 12 p.m. to 5 p.m.