Every community needs a cafe — a spot to grab a quick (and cheap) bite to eat, meet with friends for coffee or read a paper in peace. In Bolton Hill, that place is On the Hill Cafe.
At the corner of John and Mosher streets, On the Hill Cafe has been serving sandwiches and breakfast for five years. Owned by George and Jessica Dailey, who also run Centro Tapas in South Baltimore, this cafe has become a mainstay in and around Bolton Hill.
At first sight, On the Hill Cafe has an early '90s coffeehouse-meets-sub-shop look, which, after a little observation, gives way to a warmer, more local vibe. On a recent visit, there was local art on the walls, children's books in the corner and a server going out of his way to help an overwhelmed mother of two. It's clear this joint cares — not just about the customers, but the food as well.
Sandwiches are the bread and butter of this small corner spot, and one of its more unusual offers is the Eutaw ($7.75). Slices of toast bookend a combination of avocado, goat cheese, mixed greens and balsamic glazed beets to good effect. This intriguing sandwich was sweet and creamy with a bit of bite from the mustard. When a little salt was added, the filling blended together wonderfully. The toast, alternatively, was a bad choice. Slightly hard to bite through, the toast pressed down on the filling, squirting the beets out of the sides of the sandwich. Details like this make a huge difference in a sandwich. Thankfully, oversights like this were few and far between on the other menu items we tried.
The Mc Mechen ($8), a curried chicken wrap, was generously stuffed and accentuated with pecans, grapes and mango chutney. The balanced combination of sweet, salty and spicy was highlighted by fresh lettuce and served with a bag of natural kettle chips.
The yuca fries with cilantro mojo ($3.99) were the best of their kind we've ever had in Baltimore. Yuca, a potatolike tuber, has been gaining popularity as a side dish in restaurants around the city. Crisp and salty on the outside, the fries were mashed potatolike on the inside and a treat to eat. The cilantro mojo sauce wasn't very flavorful, but when the fries are that good, they don't need to be dipped in anything. All of these dishes went well with the Iced Black Currant Tea ($2.15), which was brewed well and refreshing.
The build-your-own burger ($8.50 to start) was the surprising favorite of the dishes eaten at On the Hill Cafe. When we weren't asked how we'd like our burger cooked, we were sure it was going to be overdone. While the 8-ounce beef burger was indeed cooked to well-done, it still beat out any burger I've bought in Baltimore in a long time. It was crispy on the outside, firm yet juicy on the inside and not overwhelmed by its bun.
The burger came wrapped in paper, which effectively trapped the heat and steamed the bun, making it soft and pillowy. The additions of bacon and cheddar cheese ($.75 each) rounded out the lettuce, tomato, onions and pickles that show up with the burger. If the cafe's burger was this good without cooking it to order, it would be great to see how the patties turned out if it did.
The pomegranate lemonade we ordered paired particularly well with the burger. The mouth-puckering sourness experienced on the first drink gave way to citrusy sweetness and fantastically thwarted the fattiness of the burger.
Our cashier, who also acted as a server, thoughtfully remembered the patron's names after the check was run up. He amiably persuaded us to go with the desserts, and we're glad we did. Even though the brownie ($2.15), was made from a pre-mix, as our server said, it was moist and chocolaty with a crunchy top. The vanilla frappe (3.99), a milkshake with a hint of coffee, was a good pick-me-up and a great finish to the dinner.
The sandwich is ubiquitous. Everyone has a few on the menu, but not all restaurants can make a good one. At On the Hill Cafe, even the less-successful sandwiches are still good. Hopefully one day, every neighborhood in Baltimore will be lucky enough to have its own On the Hill Cafe.
On the Hill Cafe
Where: 1431 John St., Baltimore
Contact: 410-225-9667, onthehillcafe.com
Open: 7 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Friday, 8 a.m.-9 p.m. Saturday, 9 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday
Credit Cards: Visa, MasterCard
[Key: Outstanding: ✭✭✭✭; Good: ✭✭✭; Fair or uneven: ✭✭; Poor: ✭]