Red Emma's has been open for a decade — a relatively short time in a city full of history — but as one of the first organizations of its kind in Baltimore, it has the feeling of an institution.
Named after early 20th century radical and Ukrainian immigrant Emma Goldman, or "Red Emma" as she was dubbed by the media, Red Emma's is a collectively owned, politically "radical" bookstore cafe — a gathering spot for like-minded thinkers but also a cafe serving well-executed, straightforward vegetarian sandwiches and snacks.
The new space is large and open with high ceilings and industrial edginess. The front half of the main room is filled with tables; the bookstore occupies the back corner.
If "radical" and "vegetarian" don't immediately sound like your kind of thing, it's worth re-thinking. During our visit, Red Emma's clientele looked artsy and industrious — not militant — and the menu's take on sandwiches and appetizers is satisfying enough that even big carnivores won't miss their meat.
Appetizers On a recent Thursday evening, many of Red Emma's patrons worked while they ate, gazing at laptops while snacking. The hummus plate ($5) seemed like a good fit for that type of dinner. Garlicky and well-seasoned, the hummus came with tortilla chips and a variety of sliced vegetables — carrots, cucumbers and celery. The veggies were fresh and the hummus itself was packed with flavor.
The nachos (small for $5; large for $7) were messier — better to share with a friend than a laptop — but just as appealing. The chips were topped with thin, spicy salsa, melted cheese (dairy-free cheeses are available) and black bean salad for 50 cents extra.
All of the toppings were fresh and lively but the black bean salad, which had beans mixed with corn, tomatoes, onions and cilantro and tossed with a shake of balsamic vinegar, was the biggest winner.
Entrees Though simple, the Malapesto panini (half for $4; whole for $7) was neatly built and full of flavor. A baguette, spread with pesto and stacked with slices of tomato and mozzarella, was pressed and heated into a gooey, satisfying sandwich.
The balance between the sandwich's classic ingredients was a good one; the fresh herbs and vegetables played well with the cheese and crispy bread.
We usually eat banh mi, the traditional Vietnamese sandwich, with thinly sliced pork, so we were curious about Red Emma's version (half for $4; whole for $7), which subs lemongrass tofu for the pork. The sandwich was crunchy and fun and tasted great. And it included a pile of shredded red cabbage, carrots and cilantro plus soy mayonnaise and an impressively spicy hot sauce, all crammed inside a length of sliced baguette.
Thanks to the power of the hot sauce, the tofu barely registered, though it did add necessary heft and a hint of lemongrass to the mix. It wasn't the same as a pork-stuffed banh mi but it was just as tasty.
Drinks Just after our visit, Red Emma's received their liquor license; they plan to begin serving organic and cooperatively produced wine and beer sometime in early May and will add liquor options later.
Even without alcohol available, Red Emma's had a good handle on the beverage side of the business. Their coffee ($1.85 in-house) — roasted by sister organization Thread Coffee, a collectively-run coffee roaster — was strong and rich, and glass of iced hibiscus tea was bright, refreshing and a lovely color of pink.
Dessert A slice of carrot cake ($3) was very pretty and we loved its sweet-tart frosting. The cake itself was on the dry side but still a pleasant end to the meal.
Service Red Emma's is a casual, order-at-the-counter style cafe without table service; diners pick up their drinks and meals and bus their own tables. Everyone we encountered was friendly though the pace wasn't terribly speedy, which meant long lines, especially when we first arrived, around 6:30 p.m.
After ordering, our drinks were ready quickly but the food, which all arrived at once (as we expected), took a fairly long time to prepare, considering it required little actual cooking or construction.
The wait wasn't painful, though, because it gave us a chance to browse Red Emma's eclectic and intriguing book selection, and we appreciated the mix and the opportunity to feed our minds, not just our mouths.
Back story: Red Emma's is a collectively-run, "radical" bookstore and cafe serving vegetarian snacks and sandwiches. Originally opened in Mount Vernon in 2004, the cafe moved to an airy Station North location last November.
Parking: Street parking
Signature dish: The Malapesto panini, a warm, flat sandwich of pesto, tomato and mozzarella (dairy-free if you'd like), is crispy on the outside, gooey in the middle and flavorful throughout.
Where: 30 W. North Ave., Baltimore
Contact: 443-602-7611; redemmas.org
Open: 8:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., Sunday-Thursday; 8:30 a.m. to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday
Credit Cards: All major
Reservations: Not currently accepted (groups may reserve Red Emma's private room)
Bottom line: Tasty vegetarian fare in an intellectually charged, but laid-back, environment