Some eating places are famous for one particular dish, no matter how extensive their menus. You can't think of Bertha's without adding "mussels." Haussner's wouldn't be the same restaurant without its strawberry pie. And the chicken salad at the Woman's Industrial Exchange is the stuff legends are made of.
But a restaurant doesn't have to be a Baltimore institution to have a signature dish -- the one item that defines its kitchen. At Harborplace's new Cheesecake Factory, the dish is (what else?) cheesecake. Savannah in Fells Point is already known for its grits with heads-on shrimp and tasso ham.
We decided to send our critics out to sample the dishes that area restaurants are known for. Do these specialties live up to their billing? Are they the highlight of the meal -- or the lowlight? Sometimes we found the signature dish wasn't the best of a restaurant's offerings, just the best known for one reason or another.
And sometimes we couldn't limit our signature dishes to just one. Who can say whether Maison Marconi is better known for its lobster Cardinale or its hot fudge sundae. And for the critic, what a great decision not to have to make!
So here's our list of the food that made these restaurants famous (at least to us).
Alonso's, 415 W. Cold Spring Lane, (410) 235-3433. *** $$
In these days of thin, tasteless fast-food burgers, Alonso's patty is an anomaly. Imagine a saucer-size, inch-thick mound of meat on a seeded Kaiser roll with whatever fixings you crave. Thick, huge and juicy, it's guaranteed to satisfy any carnivore.
The burger comes with excellent steak fries, and our cheerful waitress warned us that most people can't finish this mega-meal. But my husband is not most people; he loved Alonso's signature dish and ate it up. And that was after starting with some delicious broccoli cheese balls.
We also had great luck with the crab-cake dinner, which featured two fist-sized crab cakes and a choice of two vegetables. Try the crunchy and slightly sweet coleslaw as an accompaniment. Desserts don't seem to be a priority at Alonso's, but we did enjoy a warm wedge of cinnamony apple pie a la mode.--SL
Angelina's, 7135 Harford Road, (410) 444-5545. *** $$
On a gritty part of Harford Road, with a neighborhood Irish bar downstairs, you wouldn't exactly expect Angelina's to be a gastronomic standard-bearer. Unless, of course, you're a longtime Baltimorean who knows just how many times Angelina's has won kudos in the local press for its crab cakes.
It is not hyperbole to say that Angelina's crab cakes are flawless. Plump, golden brown disks are crusty on the outside, plush and velvety on the inside. Just a little salt and pepper enhance the flavor of the sweet lump crab meat and whisper of filler.
To prolong your anticipation of the crab cake, you may want to start with a textbook shrimp cocktail with punchy cocktail sauce or the stellar house salad with rich blue cheese dressing.
Entrees come with a choice of two vegetables or the above salad. Our crab cake's accompaniments were a simple baked potato and mushy green beans. For the landlubber, Angelina's Italian classics include a straightforward and generous portion of veal parmigiana.--LR
Attman's, 1019 E. Lombard St., (410) 563-2666. ** $
Baltimoreans have been lining up for Attman's corned beef sandwiches for most of this century, and with good reason. The lean, tender beef on soft rye with mustard is a mouthful of deli nirvana. Our sandwich almost lived up to Attman's neon billing: "Corned beef that melts in your mouth." Actually, the sign could be amended to include Attman's hot pastrami sandwich. Ours was filled with flavorful, dark-edged meat that was sliced thin, and not too fatty.
Use caution, though, if you stray from the stacked sandwiches. A potato pancake was chewy and tough. Coleslaw and rice pudding seemed like they had come from a container. A parsley-flecked matzo ball tasted homemade, but the chicken soup it rested in didn't. At lunch time, a steady line of customers inched along the deli cases, opposite oversized jars of pickled onions and peppers. They seemed to stick to the standards, like the corned beef, the crunchy half-sour pickle, and the moist Jewish apple cake. Some walked out with a legendary Baltimore lunch to-go: a kosher dog swaddled in grilled bologna.--KH
Bertha's, 734 S. Broadway, (410) 327-5795. ** $$
Bertha's signature dish is known in the far recesses of the globe. A photo on the restaurant's wall shows a tribal African boy in full ceremonial face paint proudly sporting an "Eat Bertha's Mussels" baseball cap. We've found that a long, cross-country drive goes that much quicker if you count Bertha's green bumper stickers along the way.
The quirky, ramshackle Fells Point bar and restaurant serves mostly seafood, a handful of meat dishes and sandwiches, and an interesting Sunday brunch. Before digging into a plate of Bertha's famous bivalves, you may want to try a bowl of crab soup or mussel chowder. Both are tomato-based and fiery.