She may not have a Food Network show or have made a run at Top Chef
, but in the past 15 years Cindy Wolf has proven herself a powerhouse in Baltimore cuisine. Along with husband Tony Foreman, Wolf has amassed a local culinary empire. The pair are the masterminds behind four of the city’s top restaurants—Charleston, Petit Louis Bistro, Pazo, and Cinghiale—and people still talk about the now-defunct Savannah, her first Baltimore enterprise, where she mentored people who would later become noted chefs and restaurateurs, including Scott Smith of Big Bad Wolf’s House of Barbeque and Duff Goldman of Charm City Cakes. But this laurel is for Best Chef, not Best Restaurateur, and the proof of that is in the pudding—or in this case, the cornmeal-fried oysters. Wolf’s mad cooking skills can be felt in every dish at Charleston, from rich lobster soup to her signature fried green tomato and crab sandwich. That Wolf can still be found in the kitchen of Charleston speaks to her love of what she does—she even worked right through a battle with breast cancer several years ago. And despite often being cited as the city’s most expensive restaurant, Charleston is never described as over-priced—which pretty much says it all.
Best New Restaurant
507 S. Exeter St., (410) 528-8600, vinorosina.com
What makes Vino Rosina so lovable is not any one thing, but every little thing. Impeccable service in a snug dining room that manages to be warm and contemporary at the same time. A truly global wine list with lots of by-the-glass options, and chef Jesse Sandlin’s regularly changing menu, which is both inventive (a “16-legged burger” made from ground pork, lamb, bison, and beef) and full of common sense renderings of top-quality seasonal ingredients (such as Benton’s ham, a domestic prosciutto, draped over local peaches). Forget Top Chef
, chef. And welcome home.
Best Fancy Restaurant
B&O American Brasserie
2 N. Charles St., (443) 692-6172, bandorestaurant.com
For a city with a serious blue-collar rep, Baltimore has a number of fancy restaurants, and pretty excellent ones at that. B&O American Brasserie gets the nod this year for its inventive American cuisine with a sense of experimentation—sea urchin aioli—and a focus on fresh and seasonal food. What impresses most about chef E. Michael Reidt is that his flavors never falter—start off with a specialty cocktail, then have one of the seafood starters or anything with watermelon in the summer, tuck into a filling and inventive entrée, and finish with a dessert worth overeating for. And the atmosphere is luxurious without being stuffy, making it ideal for a special night out.
Best Cheap Lunch
$1 Coddies at Vikki’s Fells Point Deli
600 S. Broadway, (410) 276-6996
Coddies used to be everywhere in Baltimore. The little deep-fried balls of fish and potatoes, served between two saltine crackers with a dab of yellow mustard, were the “poor man’s crab cakes” that for most of the 20th century went for a nickel or less. Now they’re a buck, and are hard to find. Thankfully, Vikki’s Fells Point Deli in the Broadway Market serves them. Other than their tastiness, their best quality is that you can tailor your order to your appetite: Six will fill up an empty belly real quick, while one’ll do just fine for a quick snack on the run.
Best Outdoor Dining
129 S. Broadway, (410) 522-4777, arcosrestaurante.com
Other nosheries may have patios and outdoor seating with better views of the harbor or the city, but you wouldn’t want to be sitting there when it starts to get a little chilly outside. Arcos’ intimate, brick-lined and -walled back patio, which is covered enough to provide a modest shelter from the elements, remains cozy during the late fall and almost-spring months when you wouldn’t be caught dead sitting streetside in Mount Vernon. It could be a brisk March weekend evening and there you are at Arcos, seated comfortably out back in a light jacket, and enjoying a cerveza, a plate of brochetas de vegetales, and
, because nobody else wants to be back there, a cigarette.
Best Restaurant for Vegetarians
1626 Aliceanna St., (410) 276-6606, liquidearth.com
Used to be that vegetarians had to research and worry over where to eat. Thankfully now that’s not so much the case, even in Crab Cake City, Maryland, USA, as there are a handful of worthy contenders for this category. This year, Liquid Earth takes the title. The results of its 14 years of hard work are worth reviewing. The award-winning smoothies are the best in town (try the hippy lippy), the sandwiches are phenomenal (we fret over choosing between the filly cheese phake, the sacred submarine, and the rueben royale on every visit), there are always raw options and great daily specials, and an ongoing interior facelift is making the already pleasant dining room even more inviting. The friendly waitstaff and service are worth a nod too. Liquid Earth has early dinner hours (it closes at 7 p.m.
) so plan accordingly.
Best crab cake
Breezy Point Seafood Company
9501 Philadelphia Road, Rosedale, (410) 574-7222, bpcrabcakes.com
A recent major revamping of the dining area had us a bit worried that the food would be messed with in some way, but thankfully that was not the case. Still the absolute finest crab cake we’ve found. Other places might—and in fact almost certainly will—boast larger lumps, but none will be more sweet, tender, or succulent. This is because Breezy Point always uses domestic crab meat in its cakes, and yes, it makes a difference. Amazingly it’s less than 10 bucks for a single cake (we recommend getting it fried), and 50 cents less uncooked.
Best Raw Bar
203 N. Paca St., (410) 727-4898, faidleyscrabcakes.com
Hitting the small square raw bar located in the center of Faidley’s fish market and carryout counter at Lexington Market can feel like popping into a local pub in a London neighborhood. You’re going to stand shoulder to shoulder with all stripes of life—law or med school students and faculty, downtown office workers on lunch, people stopping in from the surrounding neighborhoods, pre-gameday O’s fans during the summer, and the occasional alt-weekly journalists fleeing the desk. Once you elbow up, order the quantity of your bivalve of choice—we dig the oysters—request a can of beer, and then strike up a friendly conversation with your neighbor, because it’s the civilized thing to do.
1102 W. 36th St., (410) 235-4994
The Lunch Box isn’t a diner in the classic former-train-car sense, but it is a perfectly welcoming greasy spoon that offers good food at good prices with no fuss. Hotcakes are deliciously sweet with a hint of savoriness. Bacon is crisp but never burnt, and eggs are always cooked perfectly to order. Add fast and friendly service, and the Lunch Box is a welcome oasis of simplicity and efficiency on the increasingly fancy-pants Avenue.
3130 Greenmount Ave., (410) 467-7698
Open seven days a week and cash only, Pete’s Grille closes shortly after lunch, but really, eggs, breakfast meat, and maple syrup-absorbers are where it’s at when it comes to this corner counter. It serves the best folded-over scrambled eggs with Swiss or American cheese, sausage peeled and sliced before grilling, turkey sausage straight outta the deep fryer, fluffy hot cakes dotted with fresh blueberries or chocolate chips, crisp scrapple, toasty Belgian waffles, salty bacon and ham, red-potato home fries with chunks of onion, creamed chipped beef, and perfectly fried eggs—all with quickly poured coffee and freshly squeezed OJ. The service is friendly, fast, and efficient, the cream pitcher is always full, and the sugar comes in a glass dispenser, not in those annoying little packets.
402 Key Highway, (410) 727-3678, selectrestaurants.com/rusty
With a million-dollar view of the Inner Harbor through practically floor-to-ceiling windows, a cruise-ship-worthy buffet, and flowing complimentary mimosas, bellinis, straight bubbly, and sangria, the Rusty Scupper serves an amazing Sunday brunch. Some folks go after church; we go before a nap. Seafood highlights the circular room-sized spread featuring a raw bar, steamed shrimp with Old Bay, seafood pasta salad, mussels, and a smoked salmon and whitefish platter for bagels. Chefs can make you an omelet with crab or whatever you fancy, carve you a slice of ham or roast beef, or bake you a Belgian waffle. Traditional breakfast fare includes eggs, sausage, bacon, danishes, and fresh fruit, but there is also salad and a selection of cheeses. Sweet tooth? The generous dessert station includes cheesecake and chocolate.
Belvedere Square, 519 E. Belvedere Ave., (410) 323-9463
Greg’s isn’t a new winner for this category, but after two decades, Greg Novik’s baby is still serving some awesome dough circles, packed with flavor and available in sweet and savory varieties. But what really puts Greg’s Bagels above the competition is the smoked fish. Greg’s has a chalkboard listing the flavor profile and smokiness level of each variety (Novik gets in new fish in all the time, though individual smokes sometimes get crossed off as he runs out). Those luscious pieces of salmon atop one of Greg’s fresh bagels with a light schmear of cream cheese are just about heaven.
Best Coffee Shop
Spoons Coffee Café
24 E. Cross St., (410) 539-8395, spoonscoffeecafe.com
Coffee shops tend to all blend together in Baltimore, and with the local dominance of Zeke’s, a good cup of coffee is no longer hard to find regardless of the neighborhood you’re in. So it’s the little extras and attention to detail that sets Spoons Coffee Café ahead of the rest. Spoons features the most inviting coffee-culture space in town, filled with comfy couches, coffee tables, and plenty of bench seating. Then there’s its menu full of omelet and Benedict options and crazy good bagels. Add in the fact that Spoons roasts its own beans upstairs, and you have one answer to the age-old question: Why live in Federal Hill?
Best Precious Coffee
851 W. 36th St., (410) 243-1262; 320 York Road, Towson, (410) 296-0023; sprocoffee.com
Remember when dining trends felt like they took their time finally winding their way through Baltimore? Not anymore: No sooner are you glossy-magazine reading about artisinal microroasters in New York, San Francisco, Seattle, and Vancouver servicing cafés that specialize in individually prepared handmade coffees than Jay Caragay opens his Spro “progressive American coffee” house in Hampden this March. Yes, that cup of coffee is going to take a few minutes to brew. Yes, your coffee may be brewed in some kind of laboratory-like contraption. Yes, that Santa Barbara Estate from Brazil will set you back $9. Now just sit back, relax, and enjoy the exquisite taste of caffeinated heaven made explicitly for you.
Best Coffee Hegemony
4607 Harford Road, (410) 254-0122, zekescoffee.com
Since 2005, we’ve been zooted on Zeke’s Market Blend during our Sunday-morning-coming-down staggers through the farmers market under the JFX (not to mention Saturdays at Waverly too); we’ve spotted the fueled by zeke’s
propaganda label on more than a few car bumpers; and we’ve witnessed Zeke’s spread into the various Eddie’s supermarkets in Mount Vernon, Charles Village, and Roland Park—plus more than 50 of the restaurants, delis, and coffee shops we visit all over the City That Takes It Black. So for this and an amazing assortment of roasts, including Jamaican Blue Mountain, Colombian Popayan Supremo, fair-trade Hippie Blend, and pretty much any variety of coffee you can think of, we raise our travelers’ mugs in salute. And a refill, please.
Numerous locations, including 529 E. Belvedere Ave., (410) 323-2396, atwaters.biz
Many bakeries excel at either bread or pastry. Ned Atwater’s eponymous bakeries manage to do both. Quality is key here, but we love how the selections span the range between old-fashioned and modern. Where else can you find Baltimore classic Pimlico cake at the same counter with homemade granola, chocolate-smeared cream puffs, and snickerdoodles? Or chili-cheese bread, a spelt loaf, or a round of caraway rye? Can’t decide what to order? Just close your eyes and point. You can’t miss.
Several locations, including 7812 Wise Ave., Dundalk, (410) 282-2020
It’s like somebody took into account all of the factors that make a Baltimore sno-ball good—granted, there aren’t that many, but still—optimized each one, and then deployed the resulting product to a grateful public. Icy Delights just needs to expand west, and soon. The ice is shaved, piled a good several inches above the rim, and slightly packed for structural integrity. The syrup is added not just once on top, but twice, sometimes even three times, at various stages of filling the cup with ice. The syrup itself comes from homemade recipes. And it’s all served in a Styrofoam cup with a straw and
a spoon. It is, quite simply, the paradigm.
Woodberry Kitchen’s basil ice cream
2010 Clipper Park Road, (410) 464-8000, woodberrykitchen.com
There’s much to love about Spike Gjerde’s still-hot farm-to-table restaurant, but we love most that it makes us dream of green ice cream. It arrives (a solo portion or paired with, say, a rhubarb sorbet) looking like something straight out of Dr. Seuss: a dollop of vibrant organic verdantness that no ChemLawn customer could ever hope for. On the tongue it melts with all the subtle sweetness of a lovingly crafted frozen dairy dessert, but infused with herby garden notes that have totally exploded our culinary imaginations. We now want to make tomato-vine ice cream. Or for Gjerde to make it. As long as he keeps making the basil ice cream from time to time.
Best Pizza, Slice
30 Market Place, Power Plant Live, (410) 625-2668, twoboots.com/TW2008/baltimore
Every self-proclaimed pizza connoisseur salivated at the news that New York’s Italy/New Orleans fusion pizza joint, Two Boots, would be opening a franchise location in Charm City. Offering an array of slices named for favorite film characters, including the Mr. Pink and the Dude, as well as the classic cheese, pepperoni, and veggie, Two Boots has also developed a Baltimore-exclusive slice known as the “Old Bay Beast.” The Baltimore-themed pizza—crab, crawfish, andouille, jalapenos, and mozzarella—needs a better name, but it’s the best individual slice around. And for those of you particular about such things, Two Boots has the best thin, crunchy cornmeal crust.
Best Pizza, Pie
3700 Gough St., (410) 276-6787, dipasquales.com
This Italian grocery/deli in Highlandtown is better known for its meatball subs than for its pizza. That’s something that should be remedied. The bubbling pies feature house-made toppings—including sausage and fresh mozzarella—and emerge from a brick oven right in the dining area. With their airy, crisp crusts and lack of processed ingredients, these flatbread-style pizzas taste like they were made by someone who cared about you. Try the Lorenzo of Arabia, a baroque confection of eggplant, feta, roasted red peppers, kalamata olives, and broccoli rabe. The Margherita is simple and dreamy. The olive oil pools in pockets of chewy melted fresh mozzarella, amid sweet bursts of grape tomato and strips of fresh basil.
Best Place to Get a Sandwich
On the Hill Café
1431 John St., (410) 225-9667, onthehillcafe.com
What’s well known to Bolton Hill residents and MICA students was a revelation one Sunday morning when we stopped in while biking through the neighborhood. We ordered coffee, perused the chalkboard menu, and decided on the namesake sandwich, the On the Hill Club. Roasted turkey, bacon, avocado, greens, tomato, and chipotle mayonnaise, served between slices of toasted wheat bread—it may not read as an unconventional sandwich, but it was easily one of the best we’ve eaten in some time. From an admixture of simple elements emerged a near-divine whole. So good we cursed with pleasure. Fresh ingredients and attention to detail go into all the sandwiches and burgers here, and while they flirt with the $10 mark, they’re big and tasty enough to justify the outlay.
7 W. Preston St., (443) 220-0051
First, how great is it that we can even have
this category in Baltimore now, so long a desert for one of the best things ever to come from a chickpea? Shapiro’s opened earlier this year in the former Sylvan Beach Café space in Mount Vernon, almost immediately attracting a crowd. And it’s easy to see why. There’s plenty of good stuff on the menu—corned beef, lamb schwarma—but, hot damn, this is great falafel: irregular (read: not frozen and shipped) chunks of lightly seasoned chickpea mush fried carefully enough that the result is more hush puppy than vegetable-oil stone. And, even better, you can get one for $5.
Best Pit Beef
1421 Lawrence St., (410) 685-7675, harborque.com
Some may find it ironic, even blasphemous, that a Carolina-style slow-cook barbecue joint would get best pit beef. Pit beef is sometimes called Baltimore’s barbecue, yes, but pit beef is cooked directly over coals and is, well, beef, while Harborque specializes in pork smoked with hickory and red oak. Etymological debates aside, the beef here is always perfectly tender, moist, and bountiful on a just-sturdy-enough seeded bun (or white bread, if you choose). It has a deep pink smoke ring but is perfumed only slightly with smoke. Admittedly, it does lack a good crust, but sometimes they’ll seek you out some chewy end-piece or char it up on the grill for you.
Best Place to Dine on the Swine
Andy Nelson’s Barbecue
11011 York Road, Cockeysville, (410) 527-0646, andynelsonsbbq.com
We try. Lord knows we try. We try every barbecue place we stumble across, hoping for a score. We end up eating some decent ‘cue, and we end up eating a shameful amount with so little smoke flavor that it can’t ever have spent significant time any nearer to smoldering wood than being downwind of the farmhouse chimney. But we’ve found no barbecue in Baltimore or the surrounding counties that measures up to Andy Nelson’s tangy pulled pork and obscenely succulent ribs. The search continues.
Best Fried Chicken
5517 Harford Road, (410) 426-1930, hamiltontavern.com
As much fried chicken as there is in Baltimore, it is surprisingly difficult to find a freshly cooked, crispy and juicy thigh or drumstick. But every Wednesday night, Hamilton Tavern shows the snobs and skeptics that fried chicken, done well, is a delicacy. Instead of offering the grab-and-go chicken boxes that litter the city’s streets, Hamilton Tavern fries chicken to order. The light brown, flaky crust traps the moisture of the chicken meat, and the generous three-piece serving is enough to share. The bird is top shelf, and the batter is light, making this a meal you’ll want every week.
2118 Maryland Ave., (410) 637-3089, ibarbalt.com
We wish we could just, like, smear some of iBar’s wing sauce in this space. That’d do more than words ever could. But here goes: Imagine a flavor that, when it hits the very tip of your tongue, makes your whole body respond. We’re talking about a taste that good—good as in the recipe allegedly traveled here from Buffalo, N.Y. Good as in the word is out, and iBar wings are hardly the secret they were just a few years ago. Good as in you won’t even have the heart to dunk them in dressing. And they look great, too, in an orange so fiery you could probably wave down a rescue aircraft with one of these things.
11 W. Preston St., (410) 528-1003, soupsonbalto.com
We’ve yet to be more than the littlest bit disappointed by this wickedly efficient Mount Vernon soup-and-sandwich spot. Soup’s On, run by a pair of Baltimore-born identical twins who started the shop in California, offers a cast of soups that rotates daily, with a couple of constants, such as the best-in-the-city French onion, and a handful of tasty sandwiches, such as the oven-roasted turkey and Jarlsberg cheese. Vegans and vegetarians aren’t missing anything at Soup’s On, either, thanks to a changing lineup of vegan soups such as butternut squash or gazpacho. Pro tip: If it sounds “weird,” order it.
Best Tapas/Small Plates
1444 Light St., (443) 869-6871, centrotapasbar.com
With all the small plates offerings around town, it’s gratifying to see a return to the tapas bar’s Latin roots. Centro has done just that in a cool new space carved out of the former Bicycle. From salty nibbles such as fried marcona almonds and crunchy pickled guindilla peppers to a traditional potato tortilla or arepa mechada, featuring Venezuelan-style savory pulled oxtail meat piled high on a corn masa cake and topped with a fried egg and avocado, Centro encourages grazing and sharing. A Latin-centric wine list tops the list of reasons to take the edge off here.
West Indian Flavor
2111 McElderry Street, (410) 522-0220
Caribbean food isn’t all that rare in Baltimore, but island cuisine is often overlooked by foodies, perhaps because so many restaurants are takeout only. While West Indian Flavor, located southeast of the Johns Hopkins medical campus, doesn’t have seats, its offerings are more adventurous than the typical jerk chicken stand. (Its other location, 5404 Park Heights Ave., does offer seating.) Start with the doubles, two round pieces of bread filled with curried chick peas and pressed together like a taco, and you’ll soon know why they are Trinidad and Tobago’s most popular street food. The roti comes two ways: buss-up-shut (“busted up shirt,” which looks just like it sounds), and dhalpouri, folds of bread ready for dipping in the restaurant’s many meat and vegetable offerings. West Indian Flavor is good by us.
1690 Annapolis Road, Odenton, (410) 672-3581, gracegardenchinese.com
The pickings for decent Chinese in Baltimore are notoriously slim. Time was, a body would have to travel all the way to Washington or Philly to get the good stuff. So while Odenton is a bit far out of the city, we’re grateful to have Grace Garden relatively nearby. The traditional Chinese menu is comprised mostly of Sichuan and Cantonese dishes, and differs from the “real” menu found at other Chinese restaurants in one key respect: It’s in English. It may sound trite, but it’s kind of a big deal, as it opens up an array of dishes that could hitherto only be had via random pointing, or having a Chinese-speaking (or -reading) friend in tow. The prices are low, allowing for much experimentation, and chef Li always comes through with deft and speedy execution. We’ve heard that even the American-style Chinese carryout food is good, but we’ll probably never know for sure, at least until we’ve been through the entire “real” menu a couple times.
1100 Maryland Ave., (410) 385-0318, dukemrestaurant. com/baltimore.htm
While a few other Ethiopian spots have opened in town, Dukem #2 remains the best bet for satisfying those Ethiopian cravings. The cozy dining rooms are ideal for an intimate group, and you’ll want to be social with fare this delicious. Any of the vegetarian combos more than satisfy here, and if you’re a carnivore, don’t sleep on any of the wot or tibs meat entrées, which deliver a refreshingly piquant spiciness. And given Dukem’s reasonable prices, fine dining on this Ethiopian fare doesn’t have to be only a special occasion.
4805 Eastern Ave., (410) 633-3750, ikarosrestaurant.com
Ikaros is the kind of restaurant you probably went to after prom if you graduated in the 1980s. It’s a bit down-at-the-heels—think frayed carpets and faded photos of the Parthenon—but the effect is somehow charming. The service is warm and the kindly mustachioed owner did many of the paintings on the walls himself. The appetizers are your best bet, especially the rich, filling moussaka and the addictive spinach and feta pie. Portions are enormous, and if an entrée includes feta, it’s likely to be an entire slab, not a few miserly crumbles. Desserts, such as the heavenly cream-filled galaktoboureko, are often on the house.
6901 Security Blvd., (410) 265-6666
In a city blessed with some very fine Indian food, this west-side establishment edges out the competition with fresher-than-fresh naan, a wide range of entrées (featuring halal meat), courtly service, a cheap but serviceable buffet, and a wonderland of rainbow-colored desserts that make Katy Perry’s “California Gurls” video look pale in comparison. If that doesn’t tempt you, Shaheen’s generous hours might: The restaurant is often open until 2 a.m
. During Ramadan (open until 11 p.m.), don’t be surprised to find men kneeling in prayer in the parking lot.
Best Cheap Italian
406 Paca St., (410) 685-7285, trinacriafoods.com
Eating Italian doesn’t have to mean destroying your budget at some Little Italy tourist trap. You can get affordable Italian treats at Trinacria. This family-run business has been shelling out Italian groceries, wine, and sandwiches for more than a century. The pasta, sauces, cookies, and prepared foods are all worth digging into, but we are devoted to the sandwiches. Oh, man, are those giant sandwiches of crunchy bread stuffed with Italian meats delicious. And they’re generally large enough to serve as lunch for two. Of course, the affordable wines are also a draw, and the fresh bread—and did we mention the cookies?
18 W. 20th St., (410) 837-5231
It’s got built-in tabletop grills; an always interesting, always rotating cast of banchan, including one of our favorite kimchis around, and those endlessly munchable sauced-up cucumbers (dish name unknown); a page-long roster of Korean soups; and heaping mounds of barbecue, the real reason we make Joung Kak our first choice in Baltimore’s mini-Koreatown. Must. Eat. Now. Add to that the feeling that every meal at Joung Kak is a special occasion—some combination of the mania that so much food
on a table causes and the rush of the restaurant’s dining room—and it’s hard to justify going elsewhere. Also: Squid in a pancake will change your outlook on both things.
313 S. High St., (410) 547-7900, maxempanadas.com
This Argentine joint in Little Italy delivers a number of delectable dishes—the rojo salad with beets, walnuts, and feta chief among them—but the reason not to miss it is right there in the name. Max’s empanadas are lovingly stuffed pastry pockets of goodness. The beef or chicken ones more than satisfy, but the non-meat options are the way to go. The mixed vegetable empanada—a hot assortment of carrots, corn, green beans, onions, and cheese—delivers stuffed veggie goodness, but the spinach empanada—with artichokes, mushrooms, and cheese—is fearsomely addictive. You’ll want to eat more than one, but you may need a nap afterward.
Mi Viejo Pueblito
601 S. Conkling St., (410) 522-0007, miviejopueblito.net
Finally, Baltimore gets the real deal. Last time we went, chapulines—tiny, fried grasshoppers—were on the menu. We ordered a small dish, and scattered them on our black beans and rice. Though the beans didn’t need any help, the bugs added a nice, crunchy, spicy kick. So it goes with this restaurant, which opened where so many have failed. Dishes have strong flavor, fresh ingredients, and the kind of preparation you just don’t get in Mexican restaurants around here, where everything swims in a runny pond of wilted lettuce, refried beans, and cheese. Sure, you got your bistec, tacos, enchiladas, and chilaquiles. But there’s less common fare such as pozole, a pork and hominy soup, or parrilladas, a meat extravaganza served with salsas and grilled cactus. Then there’s the massively stuffed tortas, more like a meal and a half. We recommend the cecina, or salt-cured beef. Service is warm and friendly, and the carafe of horchata seems bottomless.
Best Middle Eastern
1033 Light St., (410) 209-2495
This new addition to Federal Hill’s dining landscape wins over our stomachs for everything it’s not: It’s not high concept, it’s not fussy, it’s not formal, and it doesn’t hurt the pocketbook. Instead, the husband and wife duo of Sami and Hala Tabet deliver affordable, succulent, and modest Lebanese fare—don’t miss the baba gahnouj with roasted red pepper—in its intimate dining room. Byblos is the sort of casual, friendly noshery Baltimore neighborhoods need a great deal more of.
Best Soul Food
Kimmy’s Soul Food
4426 Edmondson Ave., (410) 566-4400
Maybe it’s not so surprising that there are relatively few soul food restaurants around here, given our northerly-ness, but Baltimore really has a sore lack. Just a few miles west of downtown on Route 40, though, there is Kimmy’s, pretty much the soul food Mecca for these parts. It’s a huge buffet, and nearly everything is awesome, including the all too elusive real and good mac and cheese. Greens are excellent, fried chicken and fish are crisp and well-seasoned. Pigs are comprehensively represented, from maw to ribs to chitterlings, right down to the feet. And, um, there’s also lo mein and fried rice, since, yeah, it’s run by Asians, but hey, it’s the 21st century man, and the food speaks for itself.
6080 Falls Road, (410) 377-4228, sushihanabaltimore.com
Sushi Hana’s Mount Washington location, tucked in back of the Lake Falls Shopping Center, has become our go-to sushi spot. Whether we’re going with a big group or to get our sushi fix all by our lonesome, the service is fast and friendly and the fish is positively succulent. We love the stunt rolls, and Sushi Hana has a ton to choose from. The Mark roll of spicy scallop and the Dorsey roll (a combo of tuna, salmon, and yellowtail) are particular favorites. And everything from the nigiri to the maki are reasonably priced and generously portioned, so you get a nice raw fish bang for your buck.
Mekong Delta café
105 W. Saratoga St., (410) 244-8677
It’s all about the pho here. It’s nothing fancy to look at, but pho true-schoolers will tell you that’s how it’s supposed to be. This Vietnamese soup is traditionally a working-class street food, and, well, Mekong Delta doesn’t exactly exude glitz. But, oh my, the pho is stellar. Go for the pho dac biet, which is strips of rare and well-done beef, meatballs, and translucent tendon pieces; if it sounds gross, just take our word that tendon will become a new favorite taste. Mekong Delta is still a small operation, so waits are a possibility, especially during lunch, but it’s plenty worth it.
Best Tortilla Chips
1716 Eastern Ave., (410) 276-3741, tortilleria-sinaloa.com
We’re frequently too blissed out after inhaling a couple of tacos here to remember to grab a bag of the tortilla chips on the way out, but don’t make this mistake: Be sure to sample these amazing fresh chips made on location along with the amazing fresh tortillas. Sturdy and substantial—but not like you’re gonna break a tooth or stab yourself in the roof of the mouth—these chips are a perfect balance of oil and salt and demand to be dipped in something tasty or stacked under some sort of hors d’oeuvres construction, but they are absolutely excellent enough to stand alone. And we swear on a stack of tortillas they don’t go stale as fast as supermarket chips, but that’s probably because we tend to empty the bag out in a day. The large bag.
Caribbean Jerk Salad
Fins Bar and Grill on the Square, 2903 O’Donnell St., (410) 675-1880
After having decided that Baltimore’s best salad should a) be a meal and not an appetizer and b) not necessarily vegetarian, the hands-down winner is Fins’ Caribbean jerk salad. A sweet and savory mix of jerk chicken, mesclun greens, provolone cheese, tropical fruit, red onion, and plum tomatoes, topped with a light honey-mustard dressing, this salad is an endless combination of flavors with each bite. Excuse the ambiance: gaudy tropical murals, cheesy bamboo wainscoting, the hits from some lite-FM satellite station, and the table to your left of girls comparing themselves to characters from Coyote Ugly
(yes, this happened). Focus instead on the menu, where the jerk salad is a definite standout, but the nine other meal salads are also delicious, reasonably priced, and can feed two.
Best Grocery Bakery
Eddie’s of Roland Park
5113 Roland Ave., (410) 323-3656, eddiesofrolandpark.com
Screw a low-carb loaf of crap from a mass producer, sugar-free cookies from a green box (unless you have the sugarbetes, and in that case, bless), or lard-iced rectangular horrors from a major chain supermarket. The next best thing to making your own baked goods is buying freshly made goodies, and Eddie’s on Roland Avenue mixes, rises, rolls, bakes, spreads, frosts, slices, and sprinkles both deliciously simple basics and elaborate home-style treats. Among its many offerings, you’ll find packages of hot dog and hamburger buns, pumpernickel rolls, and biscuits; a display case full of apricot bars, donuts, cookies, custards, and fancy cakes; bagels, loaves of sandwich sourdough and rye, and baguettes; and pies, individual cake slices, and sweet tea loaves, all made on site.
Best Fat Ass
17434 Foreston Road, Upperco, (410) 239-7400, friendlyfarm.net
The beautiful Friendly Farm sits way up northwest of I-83, in the middle of rolling hills and farm fields. It has an empty but picturesque old barn, duck ponds, a countrified gift shop, and the most home-style restaurant in all the land. Please arrive hungry and early, because it closes at 8 p.m. The indulgent meal starts with a spread of country noshes to get your appetite piqued: cottage cheese, apple butter, pickles and other relishes, cole slaw, and hot rolls and sugar buns. You decide between perfectly fried chicken, tender roast beef, crab cakes or fried shrimp (or the seafood combo of both), fat pork chops, porterhouse steak or filet mignon, grilled ham steak, or the fish of the day for your entrée, and sides come in big shared bowls: hot veggies such as corn and green beans along with french fries. Finish with ice cream and coffee if you can fit it in. Friendly Farm serves a meal like you’ve been working outside all day.
Best Dining Destination
Mari Luna Mexican Grill
102 Reisterstown Road, Pikesville, (410) 486-9910, mariluna.com
We usually don’t find ourselves needing to head too far outside the city limits for a memorable meal, but if someone says “Mari Luna,” we’re ready for a drive up Reisterstown Road. It sounds touristy, but take a crack at the “plato combinato” appetizer sampler, consisting of sautéed shrimp, tamale, flauta, empanada, and chicken quesedilla. We’re big fans of the empanada, perfectly paired with tangy “Spanish slaw” cabbage; soups such as the rich black bean and the creamy “Cancun-style” shrimp bisque make it easy to want a multi-course meal. At entrée time, we find it hard to keep away from the carnitas Urupan, a succulent helping of slow-cooked pork, and the Peruvian chicken, a mightily marinated rotisserie half-bird of paradise. Mari Luna also has a way with mole sauce, salads, and dessert, all in a friendly, casual atmosphere with considerate service. Mari Luna? We’ll drive.
5402 Harford Road, (410) 444-1497, bmoreclementine.com
On a recent visit to Clementine, we noshed contentedly through our charcuterie plate, but it was the pickles that blew us away. Lucielle’s bread and butter pickles, to be exact—sweet, tangy, with the unmistakable crunch that comes from submerging cucumber flesh in a bath of vinegar. We walked away licking our lips, plotting our next visit, and looking forward to the day when Clementine owners Cristin Dadant and Winston Blick sell those pickles by the jar.
3845 Falls Road, (410) 467-1000
North Baltimoreans mourned when McCabe’s closed its doors last winter, and these days, those same folks are making up for lost time—and meals—by filling the small Hampden bar/restaurant even in the middle of the week. McCabe’s still offers homey food with a nod to Maryland’s roots, like the softball-sized classic crab cake. McCabe’s burger, now made with Springfield Farms beef served up on a Stone Mill Bakery brioche bun, is still damn good, but we keep hoping they’ll bring back the hot roast beef. Pretty please?
Best Restaurant Masquerading as a Bar
1542 Light St., (410) 605-0955, thereservebaltimore.com
Is it a bar or a restaurant? There’s certainly no indication from its nondescript exterior that the Reserve would serve anything but beer. But behind the front door is a bar that serves filet mignon and seared Scottish salmon, along with more usual bar fare such as fried calamari and a gourmet fajita platter. Granted, there’s not much delineation between the bar area and dining tables, and televisions are still a viewable distraction from the dining area, but calling the food pub grub is a grave disservice. Just call it dinner.
Best Food Truck
Kooper’s Chowhound Burger Wagon
c/o Kooper’s Tavern, 1702 Thames St., (410) 563-5423, kooperschowhound.com
On Fridays, office and retail workers emerge from the Rotunda like kids approaching the ice cream man. But it’s not Creamsicles Kooper’s Chowhound Burger Wagon is offering up. This former bread truck—painted like a bar on the outside and like a short-order kitchen on the inside—offers build-your-own burgers with three choices of meat (beef, bison, and turkey, plus a veggie option) and 17 choices of toppings (including cheese), as well as sweet potato fries and a bevy of sauces such as the tidewater, a mix of Old Bay, horseradish, and mayo. Hot, fresh, cooked to order. Gives you the stamina to go back to work, or maybe just wish for a nap.
Best Banh Mi
Rocket to Venus
3360 Chestnut Ave., (410) 235-7887, rockettovenus.com
Leave it to the joint that does perogis as well as any Pole to get a lock on the Vietnamese banh mi too. Rocket to Venus plays it straight, offering country pate along with the jalapeño slices, cilantro, and pickled daikon that lace the piquant sandwich. Naysayers can also order a banh mi with grilled chicken, catfish, tofu, or, our favorite, Korean bulgogi. Here’s to multiculti.
Gunpowder Bison and Trading
1270 Monkton Road, Monkton, (410) 343-2277, gunpowderbison.com
Sure, we love the old-school sausages we get at Binkert’s and Ostrowski’s, but lately we’ve been cooking the delicious grillers we get from Gunpowder Bison. Not salty and with hardly any fat, the tender bison meat has a delicious and subtle flavor, accented with modern touches such as maple, ginger, cane juice, and traditional pepper and fennel spices. We favor the hot or sweet Italian sausages and the aforementioned maple/ginger sausages, which make a great breakfast side (Gunpowder Bison sells breakfast sausages and kielbasa too). Even regular hot dogs are great. And it uses nothing artificial, no colors, no antibiotics, no hormones, and no fillers. You can buy them at the farmers markets, online, or at the farm store in Monkton, right next to the field where the bison ruminate.
Best Local Winery
Black Ankle Vineyards
14463 Black Ankle Road, Mount Airy, 21771, (301) 829-3338, blackankle.com
Black Ankle Vineyards has shown remarkable success in a very short time. It won the 2008 and 2009 Maryland Governor’s Cup with subsequent vintages (2006, 2007) of its Crumbling Rock, a red blend featuring Cabernet Franc, Cab Sauv, and a smattering of other red varietals, and placed two gold medal winners, the 2008 Crumbling Rock (a red blend) and 2008 Rolling Hills (a Merlot-based blend), in the 2010 competition. Its lush but elegant reds and crisp, aromatic whites confirm Black Ankle Vineyards’ place as the pacesetter in Maryland wineries. Although Ed Boyce and Sarah O’Herron, Black Ankle’s founders, look to France for inspiration, their work in Mount Airy reflects the growing skill and promise of what winemaking in Maryland can be.
Best Farm to Table
4341 Harford Road, (410) 254-2376, thechameleoncafe.com
There are flashier farm-to-table style restaurants in Baltimore, but none has been as quietly consistent and long-term dedicated to being local as Chameleon Café. The Lauraville restaurant boasts its own urban herb garden right outside its side entrance and has joined in a composting arrangement with neighbors in the Hamilton Crop Circle. Saturday and Sunday mornings find owner Jeff Smith carting crates of produce on his shoulders through the farmers markets (he also purchases from George’s Farm Market, George Burton’s longtime Harford Road farmstand), and last month, Smith designed menus for two private parties that revolved around a snout-to-tail use of a Berkshire hog procured from Ferguson Family Farm in Baltimore County. This could all be precious if just for show, but those who’ve dined at Chameleon know that for Smith, eating and cooking local isn’t just a fad. It’s common sense.
Best Place to Get Dressed Up and Trashed
Brunch at Gertrude’s
Baltimore Museum of Art, 10 Art Museum Dr., (410) 889-3399, johnshields.com/restaurant/rest/gertrudes.html
Something about the public art, jazz on the weekends, and crisp white table linens transports you into feeling like you’re in a scene from Holiday
with Hepburn and Grant during a Gertrude’s brunch. After a few of its signature cocktails, though, you’re more like Hepburn and Stewart in The Philadelphia Story
, falling on servers, kissing strangers, and waltzing with water fountains. Either way you can pretend you’re in a classic Hollywood glamour movie, so relax and enjoy. Just remember to take a taxi home and try to fight the urge to impress the rich WASPs at the next table with the old “fold a napkin so it looks like a bra” trick.
Best Western Fries
1019 E. Lombard St., (410) 563-2666, attmansdeli.com
How the Western fry became a staple in Jewish delis is a story for another time, but the ones at Attman’s possess a few qualities that the runners-up lack. Take, for instance, the ubiquitous Royal Farms western fry: very good, but too much batter and often a mealy, powdery potato interior, a veritable embodiment of all flash, no substance. The fries at Attman’s also feature a beautifully even coating of batter, but this surrounds a stout potato soul, which, despite its sizable girth, is always perfectly cooked—tender, moist, and breaks open like a York Peppermint Pattie. Try it—you’ll see what we mean.
Best Hand-cut Fries
809 S. Broadway, (410) 327-0228, stuggys.com
This newcomer to Fells Point Square specializes in fastidiously decorated hot dogs, and if you get one, always “combo” it, not just because it’s a good deal—it also scores you an all-natural Boylan’s fountain soda—but because then you get to eat some of the fries. Stuggy’s fries are unique in that they sport a slightly bumpy, pleasantly chewy crust, not quite a batter, but more like an extra skin of texture and flavor, most likely owing to a dusting of corn starch before frying. However it’s done, it results in an exceptionally crisp, crunchy, tasty fry.
6477 Baltimore National Pike, Catonsville, (410) 455-6000
No matter how far out we travel for what friends or acquaintances dub the best
pho, we cannot find an equal to Pho Nam right in our own backyards. And we simply don’t see how pho could get too much better than this. Indeed, this may be the problem, as Pho Nam seems to have isolated that which makes pho good into its product, while other places add to and adorn their own. The broth is immaculately clean and beefy, just nuanced enough with aromatics, and the noodles fresh and tender but still slightly chewy. Garnishes are always beautiful, and the pho is dirt cheap. The end.
Best Fish and Chips
3000 O’Donnell St., (410) 675-4029
Good fish and chips aren’t easy to find, and we certainly didn’t expect to find them here. Why we ended up ordering these beautiful things amid an orgy of brisket and burgers we do not know, but they are freaking awesome. A perfectly uniform, honey-colored batter is equal parts crunchy and crispy with actual beer flavor—scratch that, actual good
beer flavor, which the menu says comes from Yeungling. The fish is flaky but firm, moist, well-seasoned, and occupies the entire interior of the batter (no big hollow sections). The chips are decent waffle fries, and there are many sauces for dipping, but all of those things simply melt away when it’s just you and a perfect, um, fish, alone in the universe for a moment. ?