As a cuisine connoisseur -- with a specialty in soul food -- one of the most exciting things about moving to a new city is all of the restaurants to be discovered.
A few years ago, I moved from New Orleans to Baltimore with high expectations. With a similar African-American population, surely Charm City would offer a bevy of eateries with foods founded by its largest ethnic group -- perfectly seasoned fried chicken, oh-so-tender collard greens, or sugary-sweet honey butter cornbread.
While Baltimore does not have the equivalent of a marquee soul food restaurant like Washington's B. Smith's, New York's Sylvia's or New Orleans' Dooky Chase, it does have several offerings near the downtown area that satisfy the craving.
Here are the ones I visited, all within a 10-mile radius of downtown Baltimore.
Barbara's Dash of Soul
Robert Moore started his soul-food restaurant -- now called Barbara's Dash of Soul -- on the city's east side six years ago with $3,000.
The self-taught cook from New York's Harlem neighborhood decided that Baltimore was the perfect location for a soul food restaurant.
So Moore, who had been selling dinners out of his home, decided to share some of the skills he learned from his Savannah, Ga.-born grandmother and during stints at two Harlem restaurants: the famous Sylvia's and Wells, where the chicken-and-waffles concept was popularized.
The influences are seen in the offerings of crunchy yet moist fried chicken, extra-tender collard greens, macaroni and cheese, candied yams, seafood gumbo, fried catfish and the Baltimore-inspired stuffed lake trout.
A fried chicken meal consisting of a breast, wing, macaroni and cheese and collard greens costs $10.50. A crab cake dinner costs $15.
Barbara's, which is named after Moore's mother, boasts a clientele that includes Baltimore-born comedian Monique, R&B; star Aretha Franklin and Jason's Lyric star Allen Payne.
Although the Harford Road restaurant only has five tables, there are little touches of home. One employee recently sat in front of a large stockpot full of potatoes and peeled them in preparation for Sunday's mashed potatoes. Another employee hummed gospel music while displaying plump pieces of fried chicken for the restaurant's cafeteria-style offerings.
Barbara's Dash of Soul has extensive culinary offerings from the black diaspora.
From oxtails to jambalaya and sweet potato pie, the restaurant has something for everyone.
For the past three years, Sandra Shahid, 57, has been whipping up tasty standards at her Reisterstown Road restaurant. But don't call her creations soul food.
Shahid calls them "the best in home cooking."
She uses all fresh ingredients, such as pure vanilla and butter, and cooks with canola and peanut oils.
"I try to make it as healthy as possible," says Shahid, who dropped out of a culinary school in Dundalk years ago when she realized that the school was not teaching her how to cook diverse ethnic foods.
Good cooking takes time. And the fare at Sister Sandra's is no exception -- fried chicken takes about a half-hour. But it is worth it. The food is piping hot and flavored to perfection with assorted salty, spicy seasonings. Sandra's fried chicken is not greasy; it's crispy on the outside and moist and juicy on the inside.
Her greens, seasoned with smoked turkey, are tender and tasty. Her macaroni and cheese is the best of all we sampled.
A fried chicken meal consisting of a breast, wing, macaroni and cheese, collard greens and corn bread costs $9.99.
Keep an eye out for the signature turkey chops. (Shahid does not cook or sell pork products.) A baked version of the chops takes about an hour to prepare. The fried alternative takes between 15 to 20 minutes.
Sister Sandra's is small -- only four tables. But there is a glass display case filled with assorted traditional desserts, such as peach cobbler and sweet potato pie, both of which are a bit bland. (The candied yams make up for that, however.)
The old-school R&B; playing creates a sense of warmth and home.
The Yabba Pot
Some soul-food aficionados would cringe at the thought of macaroni and cheese without eggs, milk and real cheese. But the Yabba Pot, a Charles Village restaurant that specializes in vegan cuisine, has found a way to successfully prepare the soul-food staple in addition to other favorites.
The restaurant's collard greens seasoned with red onions and tomatoes are good. And the West African spinach, cooked with peanut butter, is a treat.
The barbecue tofu -- with an extremely tasty sauce -- is a very good substitute for chicken.
Also, keep an eye out for the citrus spareribs, the Chick-Un salad and the Live! Kale Salad. The vegetable patties also sell out quickly.
A meal that included barbecue tofu, West African spinach and vegan macaroni and cheese and a drink costs $11.50.
Skai Davis, the 32-year-old owner, says she saw a need for vegan cuisine in the Baltimore area when she moved here from the Virgin Islands in 2000. She opened the restaurant in 2003.
Vegans do not eat any animal products. Many dishes contain tofu, a soy-based food that is bland in its original form.
The secret to the food's success is all in the seasonings, Davis says.
The St. Paul Street restaurant, which is colorful and afro-centric themed, accommodates 30. On Saturday nights, when the restaurant doubles as a poetry hotspot, Davis adds more chairs to seat up to 70 people.
Davis and her crew are friendly and willing to explain the menu, which has lunch specials starting at $9 and dinner specials starting at $12.
THREE WORTH TRYING
Barbara's Dash of Soul
-- 2224 Harford Road, 410-467-1567
-- 6212 Reisterstown Road, 410-358-0008
The Yabba Pot
-- 2433 St. Paul St., 410-662-TOFU