I took a ride with Gus Kaplanges in his long, red Cadillac and got what writers call a slice of life. And a thick slice it was. During our outing Gus clued me in on some Baltimore-area restaurants that serve big portions; he offered his insights into the art of bartending, and he told interesting stories.
At one point during our trip, for instance, Gus pointed out a bar on Harford Road that he and his friends call Dead Freddy's. A guy named Freddy used to own the place, Gus explained, and then he died.
Like his 1987 Caddy, Gus is a solid, straight-ahead type who enjoys the road he travels.
Gus, a one-time welterweight boxer, has spent most of his 35 years in Baltimore. He went to Kenwood High School. He boxed at Mack Lewis' gym in East Baltimore. When he went away to college, he went down to the University of Maryland in College Park and got his undergraduate degree.
Gus now spends his days wheeling the Caddy around town, and sometimes beyond, selling GP66, a cleaning solution, that his father, Jimmy, invented. The "GP," Gus told me, stands for "Greek Power," the "66" stands for 1966, the year the cleaner was created.
Being in sales and being in the grease-fighting business, Gus has spent a fair amount of time in restaurants. As we rolled along, Gus told about some of his favorite spots -- places that, as he put it, "treat you right," that give you a lot of food for not a lot of money.
Gus told me about the big crab cake he found at Ikaros in Baltimore's Greektown. He spoke fondly of the mound of steamed crabs he feasts on at Michael's Steak & Lobster House on Eastern Avenue. As the Caddy cruised past Valentino's restaurant on Harford Road, Gus nodded toward it and said he had eaten there recently with his wife, Sandy. Gus had the stuffed cabbage, Sandy had the liver and onions. "It was excellent," Gus said, "and we got out of the door for easily under $30."
As we waited at a stoplight Gus pulled out a menu from a stack of papers that was on the front seat. He pointed to the Thursday-night special at the Driftwood Inn on Nanticoke Road in eastern Baltimore County. The menu promised a 24-ounce prime rib and two vegetables for $11.95. "Prime rib for $11.95," Gus said. "You can't beat that."
Gus and I were headed north on Harford Road to lunch at a restaurant called Bill Bateman's. It's a dining experience, Gus assured me, "that will not leave you hungry."
I had met Gus a few weeks earlier when he was "helping Ricky out" by tending bar during a beer, bourbon and cigar bash held at Cafe Tattoo on Belair Road. Ricky is Rick Catalono, Gus' friend and an owner of Cafe Tattoo.
Although he is only a recreational bartender, Gus has a theory on how to get good tips. "People don't mind giving you their change if you are smiling," he said.
Gus also told me about the time his Caddy was stolen when he was down in New Orleans on business. The police found the Caddy, stripped and sitting in a swamp. Gus had a few parts slapped on it, and drove it back to Baltimore. Once back on home turf, he had the Caddy restored.
The car showed no signs of its troubled past as it rolled into the parking lot next to Bateman's restaurant. Gus and I went inside and ordered a slab of baby back ribs. The portion was massive, half a hog for $12. Gus polished off all of his rack, leaving only a pile of bones. The ribs, cooked in a steam-injected oven, were tender and covered with a sweet sauce. I finished only about half of my serving, meaning Gus had out-eaten me.
Gus and Bateman are friends, and the restaurant owner sat at our table and joked with Gus as we attacked the ribs. Bateman suggested setting up a match between Gus and heavyweight champion George Foreman. One part of the event could be a boxing match, the other could be an eating contest. Gus seemed confident he could hold his own against the champ.
The conversation turned to the size of portions served in restaurants. Bateman said he believes in big servings. His hamburgers, he said, must have at least 8 ounces of beef.
In addition to running the restaurant near Harford and Cub Hill roads, Bateman has, over the years, become a partial owner in half a dozen other Baltimore-area restaurants. At the start of each new venture, Bateman said, somebody has always
suggested making the portions smaller, especially the hamburgers -- "because nobody can eat that much food."
Bateman said he has refused to cut the portion size. Some of his customers can eat that much. Moreover, big portions create good word-of-mouth advertising, he said.
After polishing off a couple more dishes, including some fat oysters, Gus and I pushed away from the table and fell into the Caddy. On the ride back down Harford Road Gus seemed surprised when I told him some people are willing to pay big money for small servings of food flavored with exotic ingredients.
Gus shook his head in disbelief. Soon he was thinking about a future meal. He said a dish had caught his eye as we were leaving the restaurant. It was a Caesar salad that a waitress had carried past our table, just as we were leaving. Next time, Gus said, he was going to order that salad. "It was huge."