Every adult you've ever met named Andy made a decision at some point in their young lives to be taken a little less seriously. Many Andrews do a childhood stint as Andy and then let the name expire around high school. Some Andys do their time before promoting themselves to the sexier, team captain-sounding name of Drew.
Us grown-up Andys, though, never bothered to take the training wheels off. We live Peter Pan lives of permanent diminution. Andy is a younger brother's name. Andy's like candy. Andy's dandy.
I just moonlight as Andy (check the byline) since there are only so many industries where Andys excel as Andys. Tennis is one of them (Andy Roddick, Andy Murray). Comedy is the biggie: we got Andy Dick, Andy Kaufman, Andy Griffith, Andy Milonakis, Andy Richter, Andy Samberg, Andy of Amos 'n Andy (though he was not our best representative), and even Andy Warhol, the 20th century's most famous Andy, was a comedian in his way. It's impossible to imagine Admiral Andy commanding the fleet of nuclear subs, is what I'm saying, or Subcomandante Andy leading a band of guerrillas down from the mountains. Judge Andy? The lawyers would give him noogies. Pope Andy? Jesus wept.
For some reason, Andys have always done well on the deli/sandwich shop/lunch counter end of the food service industry—the places with only one dollar sign next to their names in the restaurant guide. If you get around the city, you'll know that more than one such establishment in Baltimore actually has "Andy" in its name. Only Wendy has more, and don't kid yourself that she's the one back there making the Baconators.
Aglow with the warmth of fraternity despite the cool May weather, I set out across the city to visit the Andy restaurants on a diplomatic mission of goodwill and great appetite. Who are these Andys? What do their places tell us about eating well and eating cheap in Baltimore today? And what is it that makes us—us Andys—specially qualified as restaurateurs?
I began at the legendary Andy Nelson's Barbecue in Cockeysville, which the former Baltimore Colts' All-Pro defensive back opened over 30 years ago. As anyone acquainted with Boog Powell's Barbecue can attest, it's a safe rule in this town to trust the smoked meat enterprises of local athletes; when Joe Flacco regrows his unibrow in retirement and decides to start a kielbasa joint in Port Covington, I will go there at the drop of a 10 cent TIF. I got the brisket sandwich, but next time I swear I'm pulling the trigger on Grandpa Guy's Trifecta—a half rack of ribs plus two other meats, $24.85—and I'll see you in hell.
Before my first visit to Andy Nelson's, I was advised by UMBC history professor Terry Bouton that the barbecue is so popular—with men, especially—that at weekday lunchtime the place could sound like the office from "Glengarry Glen Ross," with all the hollering and testosterone and brisket tips for closers only. But I have always enjoyed a pacific, family-friendly outdoor and semi-outdoor picnic table scene and, on the inside, a wood-paneled, truly homey ambiance. The rooms are small enough that it feels a bit like you're eating in Andy Nelson's house, with his stuff up on the walls. The decor is a mix of pig-related tchotchkes, folk art, and Nelson's own posters, photographs, and news clippings celebrating his career. Narcissism? Not when you consider the retirements of most professional athletes, hermetically insulated by money and far away from the communities that rooted for them. Like Cal, Andy Nelson stuck around, and it's considerate of him to share those artifacts with us. Shouldn't every museum allow you to eat barbecue while touring the exhibits?
My favorite items are the autographed photos of Nelson's fellow players, which are glimpses into the invisible and perhaps bygone world of gentlemanly regard within the National Football League. The L.A. Rams' Ron Waller signs his photo "To My Buddy Andy—You are the Greatest!" while Colts halfback Lenny Moore writes: "To Andy— What a pleasure to have been your Teammate and Friend."
It's been over 30 years since a team called the Baltimore Colts scored a touchdown and over 40 years since Andy Nelson helped that team protect the house called Memorial Stadium, which was not named for a corporation but for a lot of uncles, brothers, fathers, sons, and buddies from our town killed in the two World Wars. Andy Nelson's Barbecue is great barbecue, first and foremost, but it's also a vital connection to the old Baltimore, the deep Baltimore of the Colts. It's a place we shouldn't lose.
And Andy Nelson, who just turned 84 and still looks like he could break somebody's ass, is without question on the All-Time Andys Team, next to Andy Summers from The Police, Andie MacDowell (honorary), and Andy Dufresne from "The Shawshank Redemption."
My next stop was Andy's Best in Lexington Market and its famous cheesesteaks. The titular Andy here is a Greek patriarch who, I was disappointed to learn, no longer works the griddle. The whole genre of cheesesteaks tends to be one I can take or leave, but here the cooks have realized a golden ratio of steak to cheese that would please Andy's ancient Hellenic forebearers. Some cheesesteaks amount to a kind of slurry, like a cheese sauce sandwich with bits of steak in it, but Andy's Best is pleasingly steak-forward. It doesn't drip, so you can eat it while maintaining the natural dignity of a person from Baltimore and not Philadelphia, where the people are used to living like trash bags. I recommend the chicken cheesesteak if you're craving Peruvian chicken but don't feel like hiking down to Eastern Avenue. Andy's Best is also a great excuse to stop by Lexington Market if you're not heading there already.
Most of all I like the confidence of the name: Andy's Best, as if that were enough. It is the best because it is my best.
Now that sounds like Drew-talk!
From the Market I rolled myself north to Reservoir Hill and Andy's Food Mart on the corner of Madison and Hendler Lane. Andy's is probably the closest place to buy a snack near Druid Hill Park since the concession stand at the Mansion House closed decades ago. Sadly, like a lot of bodegas in Baltimore, its days as a hot food carryout are long gone. What sounds more appealing than watching the sunset over the lake with a bag of salt and pepper fries? Guess I'm just a romantic. Today Andy's is one of those bullet-proof joints where you can buy just about everything from Vienna sausages to Lime-A-Ritas, Ajax to menstrual pads, hairspray, single pieces of bubble gum, Epsom salts, and cigarettes.
The Andy whose Food Mart this is still works behind the glass with his wife. Andy chose the name Andy, he said, when he came to the United States 40 years ago from "South Korea, not North Korea," he took care to stress. "North Korea's a crazy place."
Here was a man who had chosen soberly and with great practical consideration to go by Andy, who had built a seven-day-a-week neighborhood institution with the name under circumstances more challenging than any I've ever faced. I wanted to know more—did the name in any way choose him?—but stores like that aren't exactly designed to be conversational salons, what with the bullet-proof glass. Andy and his wife were busy doing business. I took the hint: There's room in that store for one Andy alone (they don't even stock Andy Capp's Hot Fries), and it was clear we were beginning to see each other in that small space with the kind of polite but secretly mistrustful attitude of two people with the same name introduced to each other at a party, like, Are you sure you're supposed to be here too? I mean, of the two of us it's pretty obvious that I'm the more interesting and better looking Courtney…
Peckish from the offerings in Reservoir Hill, I made my way to the logical endpoint (and starting point?) of this sojourn, Hungry Andy's on Broadway in Fells Point. Hungry Andy's is the kind of restaurant I wish I had on my block. I wish you had Hungry Andy's on your block. I wish, after sampling the food from Hungry Andy's and meeting some of the people who run it, that it stays in business as long as Fells Point remains above sea level. It's the kind of inexpensive but high-quality, family-run restaurant that deserves to thrive in Baltimore more than any other type of place, and I will shout that with my fist raised in Spike Gjerde's canning pantry; I will moan it through bloody teeth and a swollen tongue as security drags me, jacketless and slack-limbed, from the dining room at The Prime Rib; and at The Helmand I will say it in both English and Pashto, for emphasis.
The original Hungry Andy himself is out of the picture, bought out recently by brothers-in-law Damon Chapman and William Jackson. They have no plans to change the name. Burgers are a specialty, the barbecue is trophy-winning, the wings fly all day as carryout, and the menu includes cheesesteaks, pit beef, the classic repertoire of subs and sandwiches, fried chicken, and more (even salads). Often a wide-ranging menu is suspect—do you order the seafood pasta at Double T Diner?—but here the food is being cared for, it's clear, by people like Chapman's brother, James, and Jackson's cousin, Rhonda Allen-Bonner, behind the counter. On her recommendation I went with the Texas Roadhouse Burger: barbecue sauce, bacon, jack cheese, and a fat onion ring.
With Old Bay fries I put the burger away on the pier at the end of Broadway, a tugboat to my left, some tourists to my right, and the seat of Kevin Plank's broadening empire beyond. I hoped very much, as the guests of the Sagamore Pendry Hotel in Plank's rehabilitated Recreation Pier looked down upon me and the remains of my burger, that Hungry Andy's will flourish as more changes come to the southern latitudes of Baltimore. And that Andy's Best will survive the trauma soon to be visited upon Lexington Market, and that Andy's Food Mart won't be hurt by the construction project around the lake at Druid Hill Park that's scheduled to last until 2021. I have a feeling Andy Nelson's is going to be just fine. It's not that there's anything magical about people named Andy, but the restaurants named Andy are a special group in Baltimore. If something happens to one of them, God forbid, we should take notice like they were canaries choked out in a coal mine. And we should say, like Colts halfback Lenny Moore to Andy Nelson, what a pleasure to have been your customer and friend.