It was a good year for casual dining

December 26, 1996|By LAURA ROTTENBERG | LAURA ROTTENBERG,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

In October, Gourmet magazine committed an entire issue to ferreting out the best restaurants and chefs in the United States. In the magazine's 350 pages, hundreds upon hundreds of restaurants were mentioned. And not a single one of them was in Baltimore. Even Beantown and the Motor City got their fair share of ink. Well, I have half a mind to suggest that the City That Reads begins subscribing only to Food and Wine and Bon Appetit.

As many Baltimoreans know, 1996 was a fine year for casual dining in the area. A slew of new, hip and moderately priced eateries opened for business. And seasoned restaurants just kept on doing what they do best, some in renovated spaces, some in the same old comfortable digs. Here's a look back at the year.

A real locus of new-restaurant activity, the Avenue (36th Street) in Hampden deserves kudos. Holy Frijoles (908 W. 36th St.) began serving fresh and spirited Mexican food to the eager throngs in the summer. About a dozen funky tables are shoehorned into the cozy space, which features whimsical Mexican folk art and stylish decorative touches. Down the block, just across from the ever-popular Cafe Hon, in Hon's old space, Stella's (1009 W. 36th St.) opened up a couple of months ago. The chic little storefront purveys hearty lasagna and other pastas at very fair prices.

Around the corner, at 4007 Falls Road, Cafe Pangea brought Internet access this year to those of us who still dwell in the computer dark ages. It also brought contemporary, affordable Tuscan sandwiches. A favorite is the pan bagna, a sandwich of crusty wheat bread with vine-ripened tomatoes and red bell peppers, all drizzled with olive oil and speckled with capers, kalamata olives and fresh basil and mint.

Sprinkled throughout the greater Baltimore area, a host of new ethnic restaurants broadened our dining options. The Mango Grove (6365B Dobbin Road, Columbia), a homey South Indian vegetarian spot, introduced us to a synergy of spicy hot curries, cooling yogurts and exotic lentil cakes and crepes. The Korean restaurant Cho-Son Oak (1558 Annapolis Road, Odenton) began serving up bulgogi, or marinated beef, as well as the fiery cabbage kimchi, bubbling hot pots and dishes like seasoned cod head and savory acorn gelatin.

Another purveyor of Korean fare, as well as Japanese and Chinese cuisine, Won Ang (7487-89 Baltimore and Annapolis Blvd., Glen Burnie) started a moderately priced, diverse and delicious buffet.

By day a French bakery, Moulin de Paris (578 Benfield Village Shopping Center, Severna Park) turns Vietnamese after dark, spicing up our evenings with dishes like Saigon soup -- a clear, flavorful broth crowded with fat rice noodles, tender shrimp, carrot slices, crab meat and barbecued pork cubes.

Baltimore has also benefited from several new American eateries. Helen's Garden Cafe (2908 O'Donnell St.) added healthy vegetarian dishes and even vegan fare (dishes made without butter or eggs) to Canton's dining possibilities. And while the Orioles may not have gone all the way in '96, O's fans are still cheering for Nates & Leons (300 W. Pratt St.), a new Jewish deli trafficking in corned beef and kosher dills just across from Camden Yards.

Mount Vernon saw the addition of New Orleans Cafe (322 N. Charles St.), a casual, little Cajun joint, and Fells Point welcomed the Blue Moon Cafe (1621 Aliceanna St., one of the best breakfast spots around.

It's easy to forget all the old-timers who've chugged along, continuing to please their dining public. Matthew's Pizza (3131 Eastern Ave.) hasn't changed its pizza pie recipe in 53 years -- thank heavens -- and Cafe Tattoo's (4825 Belair Road) piquant, hickory-smoked Carolina barbecue tastes as good as ever.

Hacienda (4840 Belair Road) still turns out great quesadillas and burritos in its new, festive dining room, complete with sombreros and chili-pepper lights. (A fire closed the place last year.)

Johnny Dee's Lounge (1706 Joan Ave.) can still make us feel like cool lounge lizards as we tuck into big shrimp salad sandwiches or baby back ribs. And, certainly, the folks at Gourmet could learn a thing or two about Maryland cuisine just by sampling the crab cakes at the venerable G&M Restaurant and Lounge (804 N. Hammonds Ferry Road, Linthicum) and Bahama Mamas (601 Wise Ave., Dundalk). Maybe next year they'll get it right.

Pub Date: 12/26/96

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