New Baltimore restaurant The Hot Dry, from owners of La Cuchara, needs more heat, but it’s not a lost cause

It was a daring premise for a restaurant. This summer, brothers Jake and Ben Lefenfeld announced they were closing Minnow, their well-regarded South Baltimore restaurant on East Wells Street, and replacing it with a new concept.

After just about a week, we had The Hot Dry, whose food was ostensibly inspired by the cuisine of China’s Hubei province. While doing research, executive chef Ben Lefenfeld ate at the Washington-area restaurants of Peter Chang, who is also set to open a spot in Baltimore. Chang, perhaps not so incidentally, is from Hubei.


If anyone could pull off such a rapid restaurant transformation, it seemed like the Lefenfelds could. The duo, along with Ben’s wife Amy, are behind La Cuchara, one of the city’s most exciting restaurants. Before opening the Basque-inspired spot in Meadow Mill, they traveled to Spain multiple times, toured kitchens and dined at the region’s best restaurants. The result of all that research means you can nibble the jamon croquettes at the bar at La Cuchara and forget you’re in Woodberry.

The Hot Dry falls short of that transporting experience.


Dishes like the eponymous hot dry noodles ($11), a Wuhan street-food specialty, left us scratching our heads. During our first visit, it was overcooked til it resembled the consistency of Play-Doh. On a second visit, the dish was served cold. Both iterations were bland. The crispy fried wrappers of chicken wontons and scallion purses (both $6) overwhelmed the flavor within. Similarly, palatable soup dumplings ($9) were overpowered by too-thick encasings. (Despite the Lefenfelds’ claim that the food is inspired by Hubei, the menu reflects items from around the vast expanse of China. Soup dumplings, for example, are a Shanghai specialty.)

On the more delicious end were meat-centric dishes. The numbing heat and satisfying crunch of the mala chicken ($13) earned rave reviews from my dining companion (and my boyfriend, who devoured our leftovers). We found little to complain about in the pork char siu ($11), which found succulent barbecued pork sprinkled with dried shrimp on a bed of rice with bok choy and mushrooms. Also appealing: tea-smoked chicken with toothsome, knife-cut noodles ($12) — though the dish would have benefited from some more seasoning. A captivating appetizer of pickled purple daikon ($4)is set to reappear on the menu after a hiatus.

Portions are generous, and price points at The Hot Dry are substantially lower than those of its precursor, qualities that will endear it to neighbors in the surrounding apartment buildings in search of a weeknight carryout spot. Despite the more casual ethos, the restaurant retains the friendly and professional service of a fine dining establishment. During both visits, servers intuited when we needed something and checked in often without being suffocating.

We wish the food was as dependable.

The executive chef seems aware that everything isn’t as it should be. “I like the food. I’m not 100 percent happy with it," he said in an interview with The Baltimore Sun. Another menu change is planned for the coming weeks, and he and chef Sarah Murray are hoping to work out the kinks. “We’re still not content with all the flavor profiles," he said. "We’re just working hard on getting it to the point where we will be.”

It may take more than a week, but we’re willing to give The Hot Dry another chance.

Rating: 2 stars

Where: 2 E. Wells St.

Open: Closed Mondays; serves lunch and dinner daily, dinner only on Saturdays

Prices: $3-$9 for appetizers, entrees are $11-$15

Food: Chinese-inspired


Noise/TVs: Gets louder as night goes on; 4 TVs at the bar; conversation can be strained during happy hour

Service: Excellent; neither pushy nor remote

Parking: Free garage next door

Special diets: Can be accommodated.

Reservation policy: No reservations

Handicap accessible: Yes

[Key: Superlative: 5 stars; Excellent: 4 stars; Very good: 3 stars; Good: 2 stars; Promising: 1 star.]

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