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Baltimore: Looking for the Grit and Soul of the City

I've done this before in Montreal http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/794211
Philadelphia http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/808479
New Orleans http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/829768
and maybe Pittsburgh (can't find the link)...

I'm going for the first time to Baltimore in a couple of weeks and I know next to nothing about it. All I have is a premonition that there is some great, gritty, real food there. I'm coming from NYC, so we have access to lots of great Chinese, Italian, Japanese, and other ethnicities, but what I'm looking for in particular are regional foods that the locals go wild over.

I want to find the soul of the city.

The threads I've seen here seem a little... high brow? No way the words 'splurge' and 'high brow' are going to be on my itinerary....

and if you have any other experiences I should check out, I'm all ears.

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    1. re: agarnett100

      FAIDLEYS CLOSED LAST SEPT. Or they were supposed to.

      1. re: scharri

        Believe you are thinking of Obryicki's , Faidley's still alive and kickin

        1. re: Hue

          yes obryckis closed not Faidleys in lexington market

      2. re: agarnett100

        I went to Faidleys at Noon this past Monday with my son. Why do they microwave the crab cakes. Actually they were not good, I did like the coddie though.. And to the Market. I love Markets, but I didnt see much that was interesting or woth trying. What did I miss..
        PS. Trincherra was good BUT.. Jakes reallly stood out to us (they could be Ambassadors to your city )

        1. re: Foodandwine

          Lex is waaaaay past its prime, as is Faidley's. Jake's is where it's at! We're going tomorrow!

          1. re: kukubura

            I didn't think Faidley's crab cake was *all that* either. And their crab soup was laughable.

      3. Working class Baltimore is nearly extinct so your quest is probably about 20 years too late. The old generation of Natty Boh beer and cheap crabs has largely died out but you may still find some remnants in Dundalk/Essex and Glen Burnie and there are other posters who can probably recommend "gritty" crabhouses down there.

        Otherwise I don't really think there's much in the way of "gritty" food in Baltimore. The city and region are still fairly segregated places, both racially and socially, so there's little city-wide homegrown cuisine other than crabs and crabcakes. Fried lake trout is popular among working class black Baltimoreans but is rare in the "white" parts of town. Pit Beef is mostly found out in the white working class suburbs. If you're going to be based in the downtown vicinity without a car it may be difficult to access both without being intrepid. There's a pit beef stand at the downtown farmer's market on Sundays that may be your best bet.

        Faidley's probably comes closest to what you're looking for. A true survivor. Jimmy's restaurant in Fells' Point does greasy breakfasts that are very popular but the clientele is predominately yuppies although the joint has been around for ages. If you're not opposed to hipsters there's a few restaurants in and around Mount Vernon that have the hipster vibe.

        1. As a follower of your NOLA thread I'm definitely looking forward to how this pans out. You do have your work cut out for you. Baltimore doesn't "go crazy" for food the way Philly or NOLA do. And the result is a lot of bland, unimaginative, underseasoned, overcooked food. Also the "soul" of the city (like a lot of dying blue collar cities) is probably more in the immigrant communities than anything else. Still, there are some good choices.

          Lexington Market/Faidley's is definitely for you, as is Trinacria (Italian market) a couple of blocks north.

          If anyone has a good lake trout rec, this is the thread for it. Once upon a time I would have sent you to The Roost but the owner died and I've read bad things about the new ownership since the re-opening. Maybe you'd like to try it out. The only lake trout I've had lately was at Corner Carryout on York Road and it was ok, but nothing to travel for. Plus the grit factor may actually be too high.

          My pit beef rec is Jake's up on Falls Road. It's in a lovely semi-rural area instead of in the parking lot of a strip club, but it's freaking fantastic: http://www.urbanitebaltimore.com/balt...

          You'll probably want to hit the Sunday farmers market downtown, although it's gotten annoying lately. It doesn't get more soulful than Ollie and the "Greatest Fish on Planet Earth" http://www.urbanitebaltimore.com/balt...

          I would avoid the pit beef at the farmers market. Bland and overcooked. Also, there are a lot of underwhelming prepared foods at the farmers market. For me it's all about the fish stand and the mexican stand (and maybe a lamb sausage from the lamb guy if they're hot.

          Search Chowhound for Grace Garden, maybe the best restaurant in the state: A stunning Chinese restaurant in a pretty dingy strip mall across the street from Fort Meade. There's a thread that's been running for years. Many dishes need to be ordered 1-4 days in advance. I know you're coming from NYC but this place might be special to the point that it's worth your time. The steamed whole duck over sticky rice is unique (and if you're traveling by yourself I'm sure some CHers will be happy to share it with you!

          )

          There's also a lot of Latin American food being cooked up east of Fells Point on to Highlandtown. Taqueria CInco de Mayo out on South Highland ave has some very nice tacos: http://www.urbanitebaltimore.com/balt...

          There's also a taqueria in a gas station in Elkridge (R&R Taqueria) which is pretty great. At both I thought the chorizo was the standout.

          Sip & Bite used to be my favorite 24 hour diner but it's undergone some changes. Still, could be a good greasy spoon choice. Not sure it's fully 24 hours anymore but it's open late. Another classic blue collar joint that I used to like (and that changed owners in the last few years) is Swallow at the Hollow. Old school Bmore. Cold beer, crab cakes, gruff servers, the whole thing. Near the Senator theater, our grand crumbling movie palace.

          Otherwise, there's a lot of steering people towards expensive restaurants that will serve you the same food you can get elsewhere or can make at home. I think there are plenty of places with local color that make better choices on a short visit. And for god's sake don't go to Cafe Hon, which will TELL you that it's the soul of Baltimore, but it's purely soulless.

          Thought of a couple of spots in Waverly: Darker Than Blue: http://www.urbanitebaltimore.com/balt...

          Also, Pete's Grill, a countertop breakfast/brunch place that is far preferable over Miss Shirley's mediocre kitschfest. Pete's will actually be navigable now that schools out and the JHU students aren't swamping it on Sundays. I used to go there constantly when I lived in the neighborhood.

          41 Replies
          1. re: kukubura

            Thanks so much. I am looking for "ethnic" stuff too, but you must keep in mind that I'm coming from the "ethnic" capital of the world. We don't have that much soul food... at all, in NYC though. I didn't even realized baltimore was considered the South until a couple of days ago.

            1. re: Jeffsayyes

              If there is a great soul food restaurant in Baltimore, it's extremely well-hidden. Whether Baltimore is still a southern city is something I'd question. When I first came to Baltimore for college in 1978, having also heard how "Southern" Baltimore was, I expected to find great barbecue with ease and was sorely disappointed.

              I applaud your efforts, but Baltimore is not really a food-lovers destination. Obviously you can eat well in Balto, but it's not a place, like NOLA, or Charleston, or Memphis, or Portland ME, or Providence (to name some smaller cities, never mind much bigger ones like Chicago) where I'd plan a trip around food, certainly not at the gritty levels you're looking for.

              If you're expecting to find a place like NOLA's Willie Mae's Scotch House in a similar neighborhood in Baltimore, I wish you the best of luck.

              Now, if you really want grit, and want to try lake trout, get in your car and drive up Reisterstown Road. Just look for a sign that says lake trout. I've never had enough of a yen for lake trout to try this, and apparently not many if any other CHers have either, so you can be the trailblazer for us all.

              1. re: Bob W

                That's where The Roost is. That place used to be amazing. My old roommate and I would drive there in his 68 Buick (that was as big as a boat) get lake trout, greens and mac n cheese, and sit in the car and eat like crazy. If it's still good then that would be a hell of a place to get to the heart of a side of Baltimore eating that is rarely discussed on Chowhound. And I think you might be the guy to do it. (If you like giant slabs of fried fish full of tiny bones)

                1. re: kukubura

                  When I was in college in Balto I hit a barbecue joint in a really, really bad part of town called Leon's Pig Pen. This was the kind of place where you'd have the driver stay in the car, with the motor running, while someone else ran in and got the food. Leon was a bad man and the place eventually got shut down.

                  Then there was another bbq joint out on Northern Parkway we used to hit. It had great sides. Also got shut down.

                  One other place that is also now gone out on Reisterstown Rd was Miller's Deli, which hung on for years after the Jewish residents of the neighborhood (think Barry Levinson movies) moved out to the county. Quite interesting to get your chicken soup and have a young black woman ask, "You want lokshen [yiddish for noodles] in that?" 8>D

                  I saw that you mentioned Swallow in the Hollow. We drove by there recently and noticed that Jerry's Belvedere Tavern is also still there, right across the street. Two landmarks!

                  1. re: Bob W

                    We used to get wings at Wild Bill's Patent Medicine shop on York Road that were amazing. It's been all boarded up for years. Sad. I wonder what happened to Wild Bill and his handlebar mustache.

                    1. re: kukubura

                      This isn't Wild Bill Hagy, right? That Wild Bill is deceased.

                      1. re: Bob W

                        Nah, he was an older african american gentleman, although I'm sure he's passed too. This was the place: http://articles.baltimoresun.com/2004...

                        Of course the sign is still there because nothing ever went in instead so you can drive past it.

                    2. re: Bob W

                      "One other place that is also now gone out on Reisterstown Rd was Miller's Deli, which hung on for years after the Jewish residents of the neighborhood (think Barry Levinson movies) moved out to the county. Quite interesting to get your chicken soup and have a young black woman ask, "You want lokshen [yiddish for noodles] in that?" 8>D"

                      Miller's Deli is still in business, they moved about a mile away to the Greenspring shopping center on Smith Avenue.

                      For another take on Jewish cuisine, try the Kosher Bite on Reisterstown Road. They have the usual fast food stuff, only super-duper glatt kosher for the most religious, but they also have a range of Israeli items (felafel, schwarma, etc.) I usually get the schwarma in a laffa (kind of like a large flour tortilla) loaded up with various slads, sauces, a combination I call an "Israeli burrito." They also have good fried chicken.

                      1. re: ConsApi

                        Thanks for the update on Miller's! Does it still have the old ambience? Sometimes when places like that move, the food may stay the same, but they get sorta sterile.

                        Have you ever tried the felafel at Max's in Wheaton? It's incredible. Would like to know how this place compares. Max's has schwarma too, but I go with the felafel. Still need to try their fried chicken.

                        1. re: Bob W

                          As for the ambiance, I think it's pretty similar, although I don't rememeber the old location all that well, as it was over 20 years ago that they moved. When it was on Reisterstown road it was in a strip shopping center, now it's in a shopping center with a little bigger parking lot. For a while they had a sit-down location out towards Owings Mills, but they cut that back some years ago, The characters still hang out there on a Sunday morning. One thing that's recently changed is that they've expanded their liquor department, so the deli counter is now on the same side as where you order meals to eat in or carry out. Oh, and they have the kind of license that allows them to sell booze on Sundays. It's convenient if you need something, but their liquor and wine prices are a bit high.

                          As for Max's, I ate there once, and it was pretty good, but I think the Kosher Bite has a bit more of the "gritty" atmosphere. Certainly the crowd seems more ultra-Orthodox. Another feature of Kosher Bite is that they sell liquor. (And you all thought Jews didn't drink.) They've got more kinds of kosher wne than you ever thought existed, plus stuff like kosher-certified tequila.

                        2. re: ConsApi

                          Laffa in Baltimore!? You really do learn something new every day!

                        3. re: Bob W

                          Bob W: are you sure the the question wasn't "you want lokshen with that Hon?"

                        4. re: kukubura

                          How do you know me so well already? It sounds awesome. Not sure if I can make all of these outer stops happen b/c I'm not bringing my car down. I'll probably stay 4 days or so... just figuring out the dates now.

                          (just read your NOLA trip... good stuff)

                          1. re: Jeffsayyes

                            No car? Errr that's gonna be a problem. Might want to reconsider.

                            1. re: kukubura

                              To expand on this: You are exactly the sort of person who should explore the Baltimore eating world, but you should do it in a car. Public transportation here is terrible (I don't want to say more about that since I'll get deleted and people will insinuate bad things about me. It's hard to have an honest conversation about Baltimore on Chowhound because people who don't live here or used to live here jump to conclusions.) and it won't get you to the many unique places people are talking about. If you want to eat chain food and "new american/interncontinental/farm-to-table blah" then you'll be fine hoofing it from the hotel. Otherwise it's a car town. I mean, one of the places I referred to is literally located INSIDE a gas station! (There's also a really good Greek place inside a gas station further west that CH hipped me to.)

                              Another place that's really good (and that you definitely need a car to get to) is a Nigerian restaurant called Peju's: http://www.urbanitebaltimore.com/balt...

                              1. re: kukubura

                                Yes. I don't want to discourage Jeff from visiting B'more and spending some of his hard-earned money, but to eat the kind of food he wants, in the kinds of places he wants to try, he has got to get out of downtown.

                                1. re: Bob W

                                  you're being a bit discouraging, but I think for the 3 days I am there, I will be able to have a good time. I can have a good time practically anywhere new. I'll be meeting up with people, who have transportation, so that should remedy that part of the equation. When I don't have transport, I will stay local, go to the Visionary Arts Museum, stuff like that.

                                  1. re: Jeffsayyes

                                    You can definitely have a good time in B'more, just think you might want to recalibrate your target!

                                2. re: kukubura

                                  What is the Greek place in a gas station? Are you talking about the Uruguayan place in a gas station in DC? http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/760019

                                  (For the record, I hope you aren't since I'd really love to find a gas station Greek place!)

                          2. re: Bob W

                            I bet I can find a week's worth.
                            when I say soul, I don't necessarily mean southern food. I mean food that is real and accessible and which people are passionate to make and eat.
                            And by grit, I mean the food for the workers. Cheap, messy, and regional. I barely drink, so just going to a dive bar doesn't get me excited anymore. I love snarky waitresses, but surly drunks is a short-term thrill.

                            1. re: Jeffsayyes

                              without a car? Looking forward to your trip report.

                              1. re: Jeffsayyes

                                "Food that is real and accessible and which people are passionate to make and eat."

                                And

                                "By grit, I mean food for the workers. Cheap, messy, and regional."

                                Are not one and the same. A lot of "peasant" working class food is bland and unimaginative as the quest is the maximum calorie (carbs and portion sizes) for the minimum money. My few forays into Baltimore's burgeoning Hispanic community pretty much proved this point: most of the restaurants serving the immigrants from Central America served bland and utterly unremarkable food even though the setting is probably what attracts you: a working class clientele in a gritty part of town.

                                There is plenty of good food in Baltimore made by people committed to making good food. Writing off a place that serves excellent food because it isn't "gritty" is missing the point, which should simply to find and enjoy good food. If you go to Baltimore with this rather narrow minded quest you may very well end up disappointed.

                                Anyway, I second Kuku's Swallow at the Hollow if you're looking for ambiance. I used to go there frequently back in the 1980s and 1990s with school friends and the clientele was always an odd mix of working class long timers, local prep school kids and old WASP Baltimoreans who could probably buy out the restaurant, lock, stock and barrel, every single night if they chose to. Food was never brilliant or noteworthy but it served good burgers and onion rings. I stopped going when the smoke was simply too much for me to tolerate anymore, but now that it should be smoke free I should make a point of going there the next time I'm in town.

                                Another local delicacy you may want to try looking for is pan-fried scrapple. Few places seem to serve it these days but Miss Shirley's does (I have to disagree with Kuku on this one, it's not mediocre. Bright and popular, yes, and it does actually serve scrapple!). I'm sure Pete's Grill does too.

                                1. re: Roland Parker

                                  Good post. I've been trying to figure out a nice way to say that the OP is trying to fit the square peg of Baltimore into the round hole of other cities he has visited.

                                  I like Miss Shirley's too, but when we were in Balto a few weeks back for my college reunion, we drove by the "Alonsoviille" (LOL) location and there was literally a mob of people on the sidewalk. There are very few restaurants worth waiting over an hour for, and I don't think Miss Shirley's makes the cut.

                                  My in-laws live in the blue-collar Hamilton neighborhood, and the best food up there, by most accounts, is found at the decidedly non-gritty Clementine. If we could get my in-laws to skip Pappas for once, we'd actually get to try it ourselves.

                                  When I was much, much younger, I used to think that gritty = good food. As you note, that is certainly not the case.

                                  1. re: Roland Parker

                                    Miss Shirley's is way too expensive for scrapple. Jimmy's or Sip and Bite will be good, cheaper, and you won't have to wait in line for hours.

                                    1. re: Roland Parker

                                      So does Jimmy's in Fells Point. The scrapple and egg sandwich is a mainstay. Chick and Ruth's deli in Annapolis makes their own scrapple, which is pretty good.

                                      1. re: Roland Parker

                                        Try Telara. Fresh, great service etc. Owner from France. Owns a few restaurants in other states. He is a wonderful chef. And writing off a place because it isn't "gritty" enough is really over zealous attempt at being kewel. Just snobbish. I lived in the southwest for 7 years. Santa Fe has nice restaurants however the mex here isn't too bad. Golden West Saloon to get some good NM grown Hatch green chiles! It has a sister rest. in ABQ.

                                        1. re: scharri

                                          No need to be insulting.
                                          Seems to me that the OP is very experienced in the kind of places being sought. It's the kind of specific request that gets the most effective responses.

                                          1. re: Steve

                                            I like regional food without pretense. I like food that's been passed on for a couple of generations in one place. I like soul food, but not in the southern sense. I tend to find this in the gritty places. You can find great tasting food nearly anywhere in the city, but I look for something that can only exist in that place - whether it be from the mix of cultures immigrating to the area, or the resources available.

                                            Talara looks interesting, and I'd be down to go if I lived in Baltimore. But for my 3 days there, I definitely prefer the markets and other stuff. The question that gets down to the bottom of it is: Could this exist anywhere? And is this Baltimore, through and through?

                                  2. re: Jeffsayyes

                                    In and around Baltimore you can find Lake Trout. Unlike a few alwaysmentioned cities, Baltimore does not put on airs about its restaurants. Its gritty restaurants are just that and not celebrated as such. We had to one time order pizza on Monday for a visit on Fri/Sat to Philly. Its was just okay. Pat's is not the best cheesesteak. NY pizza is sometimes lacking character. As are many pizzas in MD. So, if you just flat out don't like chains, don't go. I've traveled all over the place and lived... providence, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Santa Fe, NM and now back in Baltimore. NY Chinese is okay but New England Chinese is my fave. I like the seafood at Bo Brooks and Sunset. Barbeque at Mission BBQ in Glen Burnie. And my fave is Jennings in Catonsville who else has braunswiger on the menu?

                                    1. re: scharri

                                      FYI - Lake Trout served in Baltimore is actually whiting which is widely available almost every where. Also Pat's in Philly only tourist eat there

                                      1. re: agarnett100

                                        As I believe someone said earlier, fish fry is available at so many places around the country - usually associated with churches. It's a true comfort food to me, because I always get it on trips to more rural areas. I have no idea, however, if there is much variation in them. That would be a really interesting article. Maybe the condiments are different, but I've only seen tartar and cocktail sauce.

                                      2. re: scharri

                                        I am not a philly native, but I from what I gather, forget the cheesesteak and grab the hoagie. Paesano's was my favorite. they are perfect.

                                        and yes, many NY pizzerias suck. it's a problem. I don't like it when tourists come here and just eat at any stupid pizza shop and think it's the real NY stuff. I try to help travelers with stuff like that on my various outlets.

                                    2. re: kukubura

                                      Kudos to kukubura for one of the most thoughtful and useful threads I've read on this board in a long time.

                                      1. re: kukubura

                                        Sounds great. I'm traveling by myself - So YES i would love to do a Grace Garden or any other adventures with Chowhounders. How do we set this up?

                                        - I love Mexican food. I eat it about 3x a week here, but I still like to see what other cities got. There's so much variety in Mexican food, that it's never boring for me. Plus, we mostly have Pueblans in NYC, so it's fun to see other regions. those tamales look good in that article.

                                        Thanks for all these tips. Keep them coming!
                                        Here's my map I'm working on http://goo.gl/maps/R4cY

                                        I also need to check out what is pizza there

                                        1. re: Jeffsayyes

                                          You're from NYC? Don't waste a meal on pizza in Baltimore! But if you insist, I'd try a place like BOP, in Fells Point.

                                          1. re: Bob W

                                            Yeah, scratch all pizza. For real.

                                            1. re: kukubura

                                              i would have recommended a place like A-1 Crab Haven, but I think it's closed. Still, I'm sure there are some good crabs to be had out in Dundalk-Essex-Middle River. But not without a car!

                                              1. re: kukubura

                                                I liked BOP a long time ago, but no longer. I think Johnny Rad's is some good pie though.

                                            2. re: Jeffsayyes

                                              http://groups.yahoo.com/group/charmci...
                                              Email once you have dates with potential times and places, and I'm sure you will have a few people willing to join you, especially for GG. Alternatively, email me at kelbell46@yahoo.com and I can email the group.

                                              1. re: Kelbell

                                                Consider adding a place or two in Greektown - starting with Samos. For arranging outings with fellow chowhounds in Baltimore, here's another tip: join Charm City Chowhounds on Facebook and post there.

                                          2. Pioneer Pit Beef definitely. Literally a shack under the highway. Closed Sundays.

                                            Bill's Terrace Inn for crabs.. You should get there when they first open or be prepared to wait. Locals only. This is pure Baltimore.

                                            1 Reply
                                            1. re: Steve

                                              Bills Terrace Inn is a great suggestion for crabs. Just be aware that the crabs (local ones, anyhow) are ony so-so in terms of weight this time of year. But it's out there -- need a car for sure.

                                            2. Would like to put in another vote for Trinacria. Amazing Italian deli and the smell is exactly like my Italian grandmother's house used to smell. Check the hours, though...I think it's closed on Sunday.

                                              1 Reply
                                              1. re: isabellacat

                                                Trinacria is closed Sundays and yes, it's great and caught in a time warp -- prices included.