Lately Baltimore’s dining scene has taken off, with destination spot after destination spot opening and making marks across the city. But it wasn’t long ago when Baltimore’s food backbone was built around neighborhood joints where people knew your name and didn’t need a PR firm to handle their business—they just knew what you liked and how to treat you. Thankfully, after a recent visit to Water For Chocolate in the Upper Fells/Butchers Hill area, we were reminded that neighborhood gems are still alive, kicking, and serving up delicious food in a space that should be a destination all its own.
Which is good to know, especially for Water For Chocolate, which, after suffering a catastrophic fire that left the restaurant extensively damaged back in March, recently re-opened in May to the relief of its many regulars. And we can see why its regulars were so quick to help it get back on its feet (via fundraisers and a GoFundMe campaign that raised $13.8k), because our brunch was a joy.
We walked up to the tiny-but-welcoming spot on the corner of Lombard and South Wolfe Street around 10 a.m. (early for us) on a recent Sunday (a special brunch menu runs Saturday, Sunday, and holidays, with breakfast and lunch available every day except Tuesday) and were pretty surprised to find it already almost entirely full. The inside, which seats a comfy 16 people, and the four patio tables outside were bustling with locals who, it quickly became apparent, weren’t visiting for the first time by a long shot.
Luckily one of those sidewalk tables opened up, so we snagged it and were quickly greeted with a friendly smile from our attentive server and two much-needed Mason jar mugs full of piping-hot coffee (which our server forgot to charge us for).
After perusing the menu we quickly decided on the tuna nicoise sandwich ($6.95) and the sweet-potato polenta and grilled veggies ($14.95) and instantly regretted not ordering a side of the creamy parmesan grits we jealously watched land at the table next to ours. That became a running theme as we saw dish after dish delivered near us with a heavy dose of FOMO (fear of missing out) hitting us hard in the gut.
But although the BBQ shrimp and grits with a healthy chunk of homemade jalapeno cornbread laid down at a neighboring table looked as good as anything Mom would make, the tuna nicoise sandwich was just as satisfying to the lunch lover at our table. Thick-cut rye bread was home to a layering of fresh chunks of cold yellowfin tuna, spinach, a zesty mix of chopped artisanal olives, and spicy red onions, all pulled together by a piquant red pepper aioli that we swear included a smile-inducing hint of tarragon (although the chef would neither confirm nor deny after we asked, simply laughing and saying, “I can’t divulge all my secrets”). Regardless of the secret, we found it to be very fresh, layered with a good balance of bright flavors and varied textures and large enough to box up half to take home.
And sure, the raisin bread French toast served with crème anglaise and roasted pecans a couple of tables down looked beyond decadent, but we weren’t about to complain about our crusty-but-soft squares of orange sweet-potato polenta topped with drip-tastic over-easy eggs and a colorful confetti of sauteed zucchini, eggplant, sundried tomatoes, corn, green onion, and tangy hunks of goat cheese, all drizzled with a sweet-but-acidic balsamic reduction. It was so good that while we had planned to only eat half and save the rest for later, we easily forgot about any thoughts of guilt as we shoveled the last bits of corn into our happy gullets.
Did the perfectly crisped edges of the breakfast burrito that we saw coming out of the kitchen as we left our table make us rethink our choices (and possibly pull a neck muscle)? Sure, maybe we had a short-lived pang of regret, but as we ambled home we didn’t mind too much, because after enjoying such good service and food in such a convivial and communal place (something this city needs badly), there was little doubt that there would be plenty of return trips to this refreshingly unpretentious treasure.