By Tony Glaros, TKGlaros@yahoo.com
12:19 PM EST, November 29, 2011
Laurel's restaurant scene has widened its landscape with the addition of two more establishments. One showcases a more intriguing menu, while the other aims to satisfy a sweet tooth.
La Mia, at 310 Main St., is in the location that for decades housed Pal Jack's, a pizza and sub shop that shut down earlier this year. La Mia's owner, Ahmed Ali, said he is introducing Main Street diners to a menu that features a more exotic slant, highlighted by dishes like Jerusalem shawarma and falafel. Shawarma, he explained, is one version of the Greek-style gyros, where meat—typically lamb, beef or pork—rotates on a vertical spit.
"We shave meat off the spit and fill pita bread," said Ali, 36, a native of Pakistan. "The pita is then adorned with lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers and tahini sauce.
"They eat shawarma in Jerusalem like we eat pizza," he said. His partner in the business, Sana Hasan, a Jerusalem-born Palestinian, is in charge of the shawarma and other Middle Eastern dishes on the menu.
Ali described his falafel as a serving of chick peas and spices tucked inside pita with salad and tahini.
"I am surprised by the response I've been getting with the falafel," he said. Ali said he was raised on a diet of curry, rice and bread, "but I feel shawarma and falafel are healthier."
The menu at La Mia also includes over-stuffed subs, wraps, stromboli, fried chicken and Greek, Italian and tuna salads. Side orders include western fries, plain or with cheese and gravy, which costs a dollar more. There are also onion rings and spinach pie. For dessert, customers have a choice of chocolate cake, carrot cake, cheesecake or rice pudding.
When Ali leased the space near the intersection of Route 1, he found it to be "very old and dirty." During the past six months, while obtaining all the necessary permits, he invested $100,000 into redoing virtually the entire interior. He replaced all the old equipment, and installed stainless steel walls in the kitchen, along with a new drop ceiling. Customers order their meals at a new granite countertop, where they are offered an unobstructed view of the kitchen as they watch their food being prepared. There's a smattering of tables, stools and upholstered chairs for those who prefer eating in. Free delivery is also available.
Ali comes to Laurel after an eight-year run as co-owner of a Pizza Boli's shop near Fort Meade, on Route 175 in Odenton. While business was steady, he recalled, he was contractually obligated to abide by the parent company's tight rules and regulations required of any franchisee. That proved frustrating, he said, blocking him from satisfying his urge to experiment with different flavors.
"I wanted to add shawarma and falafel," Ali aid.
During her lunch hour on a recent weekday, Demi Sentino happened to notice La Mia from the street, with its attractive new sign and its bright red tomato; she decided to give it a try. For a tab of $6.35, she got an eight-inch steak and cheese, which, she said, was "nice and meaty," along with fried onions, mayonnaise, lettuce and ketchup.
Ali said he not only does business on Main Street, he has moved to an apartment nearby.
"As a resident, I feel people here on Main Street have more values and they show more respect to each other," Ali said. "As a business person, it's the center, the downtown of Laurel. Everybody, once in a while, visits downtown Laurel."
Robert Crowell and his wife, Angie, are hoping that 906 Montgomery St. unfolds as their sweet spot, with the scheduled Dec. 3 opening of the Double Dipper, an ice cream and coffee shop. The couple had operated a plumbing supply company, A.R. Crowell, in Savage. The flat economy, though, forced them to move out of the warehouse where they rented space and to explore other possible locations, said Robert Crowell, 45, a graduate of the old Laurel Junior High and Hammond High School. So the couple bought the building on Montgomery Street, which previously housed a law firm.
The Crowells are banking on drawing a potential customer base from numerous sources, they said. The building is adjacent to busy McCullough Field, where softball games take center stage on warm spring and summer evenings and pickup basketball games are a daily staple. One block east is St. Vincent Pallotti Prep High School, which sits opposite St. Mary of the Mills Catholic Church and St. Mary's School. Laurel Elementary is four blocks east. The surrounding neighborhood is chockablock with private homes, apartments and other businesses, ranging from Bottom Dollar to a locksmith shop. Across the street from the ice cream shop, at the former home of the Laurel Volunteer Fire Department, are the offices of the Heat and Frost Insulators and Asbestos Workers Union.
The location, Robert said, avoids "the hassles" of finding parking on Main Street. "We have on-site parking for seven spaces and there's parking in front of the building for a total of 10 cars."
Competition, he said, will come from places like Cold Stone Creamery at Route 1 and Contee Road.
"We went down there tonight to check out the prices. We were there for 20 minutes and we counted 38 people—on a Sunday night," Crowell said.
Their ice cream will be cheaper than Cold Stone's, Crowell said.
"Where can you go in the neighborhood where you won't pay $25 for a family of four?" he asked. "You can't do it at Cold Stone or Chuck E. Cheese. Rita's is only open in the summer. And Maggie Moo's, in Maple Lawn, went out of business."
Angie Crowell, 43, now works full time as a legal secretary in Baltimore. She also sings in a band called Wicked Rosie.
Her long-term goal, she said, is to build the business to the point where she can leave her regular job and devote herself entirely to the new venture—with a helping hand from the couple's children and grandchildren.
And although the plumbing business has provided a good living, she said, she acknowledged that "people who call plumbers are never happy. Ice cream is a treat. It's a comfortable place to be."