Art Reigns

An arm and a leg for street food



First it sweltered, then it poured, but the weather seemed hardly to dampen the enthusiasm of the crowds that descended on Artscape, Baltimore's 25th annual outdoor festival of the arts.

From funnel cakes to evening concerts there was much that was familiar along the Mount Royal Avenue corridor and elsewhere around the city - but there also were new touches including the 100-foot-tall Ferris wheel in front of the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall and the fireworks on Friday's opening night.

We sent a team of arts writers - pop music critic Rashod Ollison, theater critic J. Wynn Rousuck, classical music critic Tim Smith, restaurant critic Elizabeth Large and art critic Glenn McNatt - to survey the scene. Here's what they thought.

At first, the food court at Artscape seemed like a cornucopia of great international street food. Booth after booth offered such seductive delights as lamb shawarma, curried goat, funnel cake, shrimp on a stick, teriyaki chicken, hand-dipped frozen cheesecake and jumbo turkey legs.

OK, maybe that last isn't so seductive when it's a thousand degrees, but you get my meaning.

So it was a thousand degrees. So what? There was raspberry lemonade and sweet iced tea, strawberry smoothies and ginger beer and virgin pina coladas. There was merlot, for heaven's sake, and margaritas and more beer than you could shake a stick at.

In two days of working my way around the stalls, I learned one thing very quickly: You can make good food choices and bad food choices, and sometimes it's hard to tell the difference until you bite into them.

It's not all a matter of the actual food. First you survey the lay of the land. Is there a spot open at one of the wooden picnic tables decorated with the cheerful pots of petunias? If not, you avoid the lamb shawarma, which comes piled high in a pita with onions, peppers, lettuce and yogurt sauce. One bite and the filling starts to fall out. The juices and yogurt sauce dribble down your arm. Meanwhile, you're balancing your lemonade, which you bought because of the promise of free refills. (Although it turns out, not surprisingly, that lemonade in the regular cup is $4, in the free refill cup, $8).

The lamb shawarma could be great, but instead it's the same predigested consistency as the pulled pork barbecue sandwich, only with a different flavor. And the boardwalk-type fries with the pork are limp and greasy. The thin, curly ribbon fries would have been a much better choice. Who knew - until I had spent an alarming amount of money?

The next day I do my homework. I make a circuit of the whole food court, then settle on crab cakes that are being cooked as I watch on a grill at one of the anonymous festival stalls as well as curried chicken, beans and peas, cabbage and plantains from Jamaican Gourmet. I avoid the Thai food that proclaims "No curry, not spicy." (I mean, what's the point?)

I enjoy the Unity Reggae Band, which is performing on the UB Stage in the food court. And I have spent enough money to buy a second home.

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