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Mar 17, 2008 07:39 PM

Cafe Zen on Belvedere Ave

On Sunday I finally got to Cafe Zen for the first time after hearing about them for a year or two. Cafe Zen has won lots of praise from traditional sources such as AOL City Guide, City Paper and Zagat. Basically what they say is that the place is not fancy - rather plain and unattractive on the inside, but with fantastic food. When we got there we were the only people in the restaurant. I found the place to look a little weathered, but attractive in an artsy sort of way. My Fiance thought it seemed dirty, but I argued that it did not - to me it just looked weathered and worn from years of wear like an old glove. We got crab meat wontons as an appetizer which were sort of different then we're use to - not very crispy, but with a terrific flavor. The strange thing is the wontons were served over a garnishment of one of the oldest pieces of lettuce I'd ever been served. When our entrees came, we were pleasantly surprised. I had tofu and broccoli in a brown sauce with white rice that was very good. My fiance had an enormous portion of something called a chicken and string beans roll which was a layered scallion pancake wrapped around tender white meat chicken and string beans with a sweet sauce to it - the presentation was beautiful. I have probably eaten at over 50 restaurants around Baltimore in the past couple of years - everything from greasy spoon diners and pit beef stands to Tersiguel's and Antrim 1844, but my Fiances string beans with chicken roll was one of the best things I have ever tasted in my life! It is by far the best dish I've ever had in a Chinese restaurant. We also brought home an order of beef and broccoli to our fussy daughter and she enjoyed her dish as well - which is not always a small feat. One thing that made me feel a little better for Cafe Zen is that they had a couple of take out orders while we ate our leisurely lunch and another table of 2 came in (it seemed they were Regulars) and sat down just before we left. The restaurant next door - Zen West looked pretty busy. I've heard that they are owned by the same people, but the reviews I've seen were not as favorable as Cafe Zen. I'll have to go back again and try some other dishes.

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  1. Thanks for sharing. My observations have been similar to yours regarding the atmosphere and the food (right down to the old lettuce garnish). The only thing I would add is that their 'version' of Chinese food seems a bit healthier than the usual fare- not as much oil/grease. A funny experience we had there: it was our waiter's first time ever opening a bottle of wine. Needless to say, we had a strap on some patience that night.

    1. That pancake is about the only thing I like there. Good choice.

      1. The "old lettuce" is a leaf of napa cabbage, and it's there to absorb any extra oil and keep the wontons from skittering off the plate. Cafe Zen doesn't really do garnish. My family have been regulars at Zen for at least a decade now. The tofu with garlic spinach is my all-time favorite; homemade dumplings are great, too. The service is usually somewhat ham-handed but forgivable since servers ares usually very nice. Good quality food at relatively low prices keep us coming back.

        Whitemarshjohn, I enjoy reading your reviews! Could you please do us a favor, though and break them into multiple paragraphs? They would be much easier to read that way. What can I say; I'm a former English teacher.

        1. whitemarshjohn, how is the portion size?

          2 Replies
          1. re: cduncan

            Not whitemarshjohn, but every time we eat in, we have leftovers. Especially the curries - the chicken curry is a HUGE plate of rice and chicken curry.

            1. re: a70wilson

              Thanks, I'm going to be feeding a bunch of big eaters.

          2. Get the Zen Curry! Preferably chicken, and make sure you ask for spicy. It's a bit Thai in nature, and has that fifth taste we always hear about. Delicious. The item is listed on the back of the menu, so it's easily overlooked if one hasn't been there before. On my most recent visit, on a Friday night, the place was less than half full, which was extremely weird because we always had to wait, even on a weekday night. Makes me wonder if the place changed hands or something.

            1 Reply
            1. re: Montebello

              Went to Cafe Zen on monday night and I got the zen curry (chicken) and it was delicious. It was even better the next day. Thanks for the suggestion Montebello.