Anyone searching for a tasty and inexpensive meal will find lots of choices in Towson, especially along Allegheny Avenue and York Road, where ethnic restaurants and bars beckon for blocks in every direction.
One bright recent addition to this casual dining scene is Zia's, a smoothie and sandwich shop that opened in March. The owner is Daniela Troia, of the Troia family that owns the higher-end Cafe Troia, the Italian restaurant across the street.
Troia, who knows the restaurant business well, loves smoothies but couldn't find a nearby place for her favorite drink, so she opened a smoothie shop of her own.
The smoothies, offered with a staggering choice of ingredients and add-ons, are lighter and less sweet than other smoothies I've had, and therefore more refreshing. A concoction of peach, honey, milk, yogurt, cinnamon and allspice was creamy but not cloying, though the overriding flavor of allspice seemed to evoke the wrong season -- the peaches tasted of spring, the spice of fall's pumpkin pies.
A better combination was the mix of peach, grape, apple juice and lemon juice, which was lightly sweet and a little tart. But if neither of these satisfies you, something else probably will. How about a mix of carrot and beet juice? Or a tomato, cucumber, celery, parsley and lemon combo? You can even get a shot of wheatgrass -- the staff simply cuts the green shoots from a plant in the deli case.
Though Zia's is not a vegetarian restaurant, Troia has brought her interest in whole foods to her new venture. She makes a point of using organic produce and meats that are free of antibiotics, hormones and nitrates. Vegans and vegetarians can find plenty of options.
The deli case overflows with attractive and hearty salads and fresh-looking entrees such as vegetarian lasagna, packaged in plastic for take-out. (A microwave has been set up for customers who want to heat and eat on the premises.)
Sandwiches can be made to order, with ingredients such as organic peanut butter, antibiotic-free chicken, and nitrate-free salami, or customers can choose one of the specialties, such as the garden grill, with grilled marinated veggies, arugula and goat cheese.
Order at the counter, and one of the polite young staffers will bring the food to your table.
The garden grill, served cold, had only a single thin layer of grilled eggplant to fill the marinated veggie requirement. Some red peppers, zucchini or onions would have upped the flavor and given the sandwich more heft.
Another sandwich, the Western club, was equally stingy with the smoked turkey, black forest ham and Havarti cheese, so that the generous slathering of sharp Dijon mustard overpowered the meats and cheeses.
Zia's also serves delicious little empanadas. The Santa Fe, stuffed with corn, black beans and cheese, was wholly satisfying, while the Buenos Aires, made with ground beef, veggies and cumin, was basically a dollop of chili inside a tender casing of whole wheat dough.
Served warm, these three-bite nuggets are just the right size to go with a bowl of soup, made daily by Daniela's grandmother, Elena Troia.
Desserts, also made by Elena Troia, change regularly but often include a sweet, crumbly cookie made with spelt dough and stuffed with papaya filling, and a sandwich of two cheerfully spiced ginger cookies.
The clean, sunny interior at Zia's, with its blond wood tables and creamy yellow and green walls, would be quite soothing, except that conversation was almost impossible because of the constant grinding sound of smoothies being made -- an occupational hazard with any smoothie shop.
On nice days, a better option is to eat at one of the sidewalk tables.
Where: 13 Allegheny Ave., Towson
Open: 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday, closed Sunday
Credit cards: All major
Prices: Smoothies $3.57-$5.24, sandwiches $2.86- $5.71
Food: *** (3 STARS)
Service: ** (2 STARS)
Atmosphere: ** (2 STARS)