One potato, two potatoes, three potatoes, four … that’s how many I’ve had in as many weeks at Potato Valley Café in downtown Annapolis.
That may seem excessive, but when you consider I’ve been walking by it for the 23 years it’s been sitting on State Circle, it works out to a paltry one potato every 5.75 years.
Why did I never stop in? I always thought of it as a kind of cafeteria for legislators and lobbyists, judging by their hours and the suits I saw going in and out over the years. And that’s somewhat the case. But now that I’ve become something of a serial potato-eater, I’ve learned that “we the people” are more than welcome inside.
Ask Barbara Ripani, co-owner with her husband and chief cook Andy Ekbladh, a native of Sweden, and she’ll tell you about the Mids, Johnnies, downtown residents, office workers, celebrities, politicians, tourists and travelers from near and far who’ve ordered enough of their oven-roasted baked potatoes to encircle the globe. Probably. At 100 potatoes a day, six days a week, since 1994 – you do the math. She calls regulars by name and knows what they want as soon as they call or step inside.
The warm, welcoming little shop at the foot of State House Hill is like a window on the world of Annapolis. You never know what you might see there. And that’s fitting, as the building was a theater in the 1920s and a movie house into the 1980s.
On one of my visits, I had a jolly-good conversation with an English couple who were visiting Annapolis for the first time. Just after we said, “Cherrio,” I was treated to the sight of a tractor-trailer going the wrong way around State Circle. Ack! He may be stuck there still.
The chance to see that repeated makes me want to linger, although Barbara and Andy have built their business on the quick in-and-out business lunch model. But this isn’t your typical greasy “fast food” fare.
I’ve lost track on whether white potatoes are “good for you.” Whatever. They taste darn good, and the experts are likely to change their minds next week anyway. Besides, Andy loads up these potatoes with so many fresh, crunchy good things on top that they have to come out a nutritional winner.
The spuds I’ve sampled are the spinach, feta and roasted garlic mix ($8.35); Cuban chicken with chili lime sour cream and cheddar (very popular); and beef chili and cheddar with jalapenos and corn chips ($8.95 each).
With more than 24 options and daily specials, you’re sure to find a combination that’s right for you. Ask for a sample, if Barbara doesn’t offer one first.
My college gal, Julia, piped up and said, “They should do a crab dip potato with Old Bay.” Good idea!
What makes them so good? It’s fresh, naked Idaho bakers in a hot (400-degree) oven, which makes for crispy skins and moist, tender insides.
All come loaded with salad toppings: lettuce, cucumber, mango, jalapenos, red pepper, banana peppers, olives, and imported Danish roasted onions, mild and sweet.
They’re served prettily in brown butcher paper on a paper tray, but if you’re a potato skin eater like me, you’ll want to drag the potato onto the tray and off the paper in order to properly cut and consume every bite. (Actually, I eat half my potato there and take the other half home for later. They’re huge.)
Don’t worry about lunching with non-potato people: Potato Valley also serves sandwiches, including ham and Havarti ($7.45); veggie on multigrain bread with Havarti and avocado ($6.95); organic egg salad and tuna salad ($7.50/$7.65); and marinated grilled chicken breast with Havarti and honey mustard ($7.95), all with lettuce and tomato.
There are also salad plates: mixed greens with those yummy potato toppings ($8.45), to which you can add tuna or chicken for a modest upcharge; vegetarian plate ($10.55); Greek salad ($9.45) and an intriguing “native grilled corn salad” with avocado, grilled corn, mango and grilled potatoes ($10.75).
They also serve a homemade soup of the day and have a variety of wrapped desserts at the counter such as cookies, brownies, zucchini bread and iced lemon loaf.
The drink selection includes European-style coffee, chai tea, hot chocolate, Nantucket juices, and home-brewed sweet and unsweetened iced tea. They also put out a complimentary jug of water with lemon, which I appreciate.
With a day’s notice, they’ll put any of their offerings together to cater your holiday party.
If you’re rushing around downtown this holiday season, do yourself a favor and step inside Potato Valley for a nourishing break. Better get your potato on while you can: We only have until Jan. 10, when the next legislative session convenes to claim Potato Valley as its own.
Potato Valley Café
WHERE: 47 State Circle, Suite 100, downtown Annapolis
HOURS: Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Saturday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.; closed Sunday
OWNERS: Barbara Ripani and Anders (Andy) Ekbladh
POTATOES: $4.45 to $11.30
SANDWICHES: $6.95 to $8.65
SALADS: $8.45 to $10.75
SOUP OF THE DAY: $4.99
RESERVATIONS: Not necessary
CREDIT CARDS: All major cards