Despite the fact
that it's been a decade since I left South Baltimore, I consider Cross Street my "home" market (1065 S. Charles St.). I spent countless long, hazy weekday afternoons perched on a stool at
-usually in the company of a few of the city's other fine freelance journalists-making half-a-dozen oysters and a
(we called them "Very Large Beers") last from lunch till the people with real jobs started showing up for happy hour.
In the ensuing decade, there have, of course, been changes. The guy who owned the
stand back in those days bought out Nick's raw bar and seafood counters, according to local scuttlebutt, and now the whole west end of the market has been upgraded from its former scruffiness to something of a tourist-conscious seafood court. Kind of like a mini-Faidley's, only with sushi. And, naturally, new vendors have replaced some of the faces I remember. The biggest change, however, was that on a recent weekday lunch hour the market was remarkably empty. It used to bustle with neighborhood people. Ladies wearing those diaphanous scarves to protect their hairdos, pushing foldable shopping carts, and pinching the produce. Workers from the neighborhood stopping in for lunch or an afternoon coffee. Kids hookingschool, skulking in for a milkshake. I keenly felt the lack of the most colorful neighborhood denizens, the unemployed and unemployable, frequently short on teeth but long on hustle, camped out at Nick's.
I was mystified-where was everybody? I wondered if it was an off day. Cross Street used to be one of the city's busiest markets, but conversations with some longtime tenants-Steve of
and the lady who runs
Big Jim's Deli
-and even newer arrivals affirmed that customer traffic has steadily dwindled. There are times the market still rocks, like game days at the nearby stadiums, but overall business is down. Vendors blame it on gentrification. As Formstone came down and roof decks went up, the blue-collar backbone of South Baltimore morphed into white-collar professionals who work, and apparently shop, elsewhere.
There is yet much to love at Cross Street, though. My favorite new stand is
, which has fresh and zesty Mexican offerings-the
with cilantro-lime rice, homemade salsa, and guacamole are fantastic ($8 for 3). Even better is the
cilantro noodle soup
($4.95), a fragrant bowl of fish broth, rice noodles, tofu, and mushrooms, kicked up with potent slices of jalapeño. This soup is one of the best things made by any vendor in any city market and certainly something you won't find elsewhere.
The Pretzel Twist
had the only line of customers, and I can understand why-the freshly made, yeast-raised dough bakes into pillowy, buttery twists you can buy warm from the oven (
$2.25; I highly recommend splurging the extra 25 cents for honey mustard to dip it in). A friend who works across the street says that most of his office mates come over for a pretzel break every afternoon-"Those things are as addictive as crack," he reports. Across the aisle,
squid on a stick
($2), grilled while you wait. The squid is tender, the marinade just the right amount of umami heat, and it's a lot of fun to eat-the best food-on-a-stick in Baltimore. The
stand offers artisan breads freshly baked in-house which you can take home by the loaf or enjoy right there, toasted into panini sandwiches ($5) like the
Francis Scott Key
(manchego cheese and quince paste on sourdough). The stall also offers a great selection of local products like Infused Spreads, Zeke's Coffee, and raw-milk cheeses from Chapel's Country Creamery on the Eastern Shore.
Other market offerings from venerable vendors are reassuringly unchanged and eternal: the luscious, kraut-stuffed, Russian dressing-dripping
($6.95) from Big Jim's Deli;
fried chicken wings
(5 for $4); fresh
potato chips, sold in bulk in paper bags ($3) at Steve's Lunch, the last place I know that sells them this way; flaky
slathered in white icing at
Mama's One Stop Bakery
(85 cents each, $4.50 for a half-dozen. Like you won't eat them all in the car before you even get home);
Mary Sue Easter eggs
. Every delightful thing just steps toward the next-such fun wandering the stalls, not knowing what you'll discover next. I had forgotten what a pleasure market shopping can be. And I felt a little worried that this pleasure won't always be here, waiting. I resolved to stop taking Cross Street Market for granted and to show up here more often, money in hand.