Tomorrow is Opening Day, in case anybody in Baltimor doesn't know it. And the new Camden Yards stadium is only a few minutes' walk from the Inner Harbor, where there are plenty of places to park. So I decided to take a look at some of the quick-hit food places in Harborplace's Light Street Pavilion. You might want to have a sit-down meal on your way to the ballgame, but you're more likely to grab something and keep moving. (Unless, of course, you're going to settle for an overpriced hot dog at the ballpark, in which case you might as well quit reading.)
Any fast food at Harborplace tends to be a cut above your greasy hamburger and limp fries, and even a cut above a lot of suburban mall food-court food. I can remember very little about the food stalls when the pavilion first opened -- we reviewers were more interested in the Soup Kitchen and the American Cafe and Jean Claude's, the full-service restaurants. It seems to me the Flying Fruit Fantasy was there on the second floor (it still is), and certainly a hamburger joint, a pizza stand and an egg-roll-and-chop-suey stall -- but beyond that I have no memory at all.
Things have changed, as I suspected. You can still get pizza and hamburgers and Chinese food, but businesses catering to more sophisticated tastes have also moved in. Here are the ones I found most interesting:
OK, it's a hamburger joint. Forget I said sophisticated for a moment.
OK, it's a chain, but it's a chain stretching from Los Angeles to New York, with places in London and Tokyo as well.
Johnny Rockets, located near the escalators on the ground level, sells nostalgia. It's the kind of fantasy diner that harks back to the '50s but never actually existed until the '80s. It's more of a sit-down restaurant than any of the other places mentioned here; but the menu is so simple it takes only a little longer to get served than upstairs at the food stalls, particularly if you eat at the counter.
What you want to order at Johnny Rockets is the hamburger, the Original, for $3.55. It isn't a monster burger with fancy sauces or anything -- just simple, good beef, not overcooked, served the way I remember them with lettuce, tomato, mustard, pickle, mayonnaise, relish, hold the chopped onion. A side order of fries comes hot and crisp. But best of all is the milkshake, made with real milk and real ice cream and just the right amount of chocolate syrup.
Here's where the fast food gets interesting. You have to hunt a little bit for Pik-a-Pita, because it's tucked away to the side on the upper level; but if you enjoy Middle Eastern cuisine it's worth the search. Somehow you don't expect to get food like a tuna sandwich flavored with fresh cilantro at a stall. Or freshly squeezed orange juice.
I recommend the roast chicken sandwich with romaine lettuce and spiced garlic mayonnaise in hot pita bread ($4.15). Or try some of the Middle Eastern salads. The salad sampler ($4.25) includes a silky-smooth, addictive hummus (chickpea dip); baba ghanouj -- eggplant pureed and sparked with sesame seed, lemon and garlic; a tabbouleh salad that had too much parsley and too little cracked wheat for my taste; and a fine tossed salad made with romaine, vegetables, "pita chips" and a good, lemony dressing. Any of these salads can be had separately; with them comes hot pita bread.
Save room for a piece of first-rate baklava for dessert.
S. R. FLORENDO
If I weren't in the mood for Middle Eastern, I'd definitely head for S. R. Florendo Philippine-Asian Foods near City Lights on the second level. Sony Florendo once owned a full-service Asian restaurant on Park Avenue called Sony's. (Surely everyone has heard about her battle with the electronics giant over the name.) In some ways her Harborplace counter seems more like a restaurant than a food stall.
In dishes like camaron manila ($4.75), the fresh vegetables and shrimp are cooked in advance, of course. But instead of being kept on a steam table so they get mushier and mushier, they're just barely cooked the first time and then quickly microwaved to reheat them. No goopy sauces here, and just about everything I've tried has been fresh and well-prepared, from the chicken teriyaki ($3.95) to the pancit bihon, chicken and vegetables over rice noodles ($3.50).
Attention is paid to looks, too. The colorful food is served not in the ubiquitous white plastic foam but on handsome black plastic plates. The "Asian inspired salads" look particularly gorgeous, but all the meals are arranged with care.
I've been to sit-down restaurants that don't have as big a menu as the Acropolis, across from S. R. Florendo. The food is more inconsistent than at the other places I've mentioned, but choose wisely and you can get a good Greek meal for very little money. Here's what works and what doesn't among the dishes I've tried: