Cozy Side Street Cafe oozes country charm

EATS

Dining For $25 Or Less

April 27, 2006|By KAREN NITKIN | KAREN NITKIN,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The aptly named Side Street Cafe is indeed entered from a side street, just off York Road. Though it's not far from the newly glammed-up Hunt Valley Towne Centre, with its Wegmans and fancy stores, gentrified parts of York Road still seem a world away from this little alley.

The location can lead to low expectations, but once inside this charming little restaurant, memories of the potholed parking lot quickly fade. The space, painted in tans and browns, has the cozy yet airy feel of a country cafe. Underlining the coziness, several smaller rooms have been carved from the cafe's odd-shaped layout, each with about four tables.

The walls are decorated with colorful paintings of country scenes, and shelves are arranged with knickknacks that look as though they have won approval by the Country Cafe Decorating Committee. Mismatched chairs and tablecloths complete the look.

Side Street, befitting a lunch-only restaurant, serves mainly soups, salads and sandwiches with an occasional crab cake, kebab or gyro thrown in. The food is fresh and basic, pleasant enough without calling attention to itself. Yet one gets the feeling this kitchen is holding itself back.

The clue that better things are possible is the gyro ($7.25). It's one of the best around - with slices of perfectly seasoned not-tough-at-all beef served sizzling hot from the grill and pillowed on a soft, warm pita, topped with the cool crunch of lettuce and red onion rings and a dollop of creamy gyro sauce.

Other dishes, though good, didn't have quite the same pizazz. A chicken salad sandwich was stuffed with a refined, chopped-till-almost-smooth mix of white-meat chicken, mayo, celery bits and salt and pepper. It was classic ladies-who-lunch fare, with no bells or whistles.

All sandwiches come with a little plastic container of macaroni salad, the kind served at PTA potlucks, with chopped olives, bits of red onion and a mild vinaigrette dressing.

We weren't allowed to substitute french fries for the potato chips with our sandwiches, so we ordered a serving of the fries. The fat wedges were crisp on the outside but not particularly tender within, and not nearly salty or greasy enough to justify the $2.50 price - or the calories.

The sparse selection of appetizers includes chicken wings ($6.25) and fried cheese sticks ($5.94). But soup, clearly one of the specialties of Side Street, seems a better choice.

On our waitress' recommendation, I had the cream of asparagus soup ($2.95), and found it as rich and mellow as a warm spring day. The asparagus flavor was mild, and the soup was thick with cream and pureed until nearly perfectly smooth.

We also tried the potato soup, which was very cheesy and chunky, with tiny bits of shredded carrots and a much bolder flavor than the asparagus soup.

Desserts ($3.50), which come from Ms. Desserts, change regularly. We had a lovely lemon pound cake and a slice of apple cake with a maple-flavored frosting. Both generous slices, served with a dollop of whipped cream, were moist and dense, but they were served several degrees too cold.

Ozzie Mehdizadeh, who has owned the little cafe for six years with partner Frank Atai, said he doesn't advertise and has simply relied on word of mouth to build the business. He's nervous about the big chains - Noodles & Co., Chipotle and Outback Steakhouse - that are now attracting crowds at Hunt Valley. "They spend millions," he said.

But on a recent weekday, Side Street was hopping. Some people looked like they were on business lunches, others taking a break from shopping. Word of mouth seems to be working.

Side Street Cafe

Where:

10921 York Road, Cockeysville

Call:

410-329-1106

Open

11 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday-Saturday

Credit cards:

All major

Prices:

Appetizers, $2.50-$6.50, entrees $5.50-$8.50

Food:

*** (3 stars)

Service:

*** (3 stars)

Atmosphere:

*** (3 stars)

[Outstanding:**** Good:*** Fair or uneven:** Poor:*

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