The sweet & the sour

When temperature soars, a critic searches for Baltimore's best fresh lemonade


In the middle of Baltimore's hottest summer in years, I've been craving lemonade. I want the perfect summer lemonade, made with fresh-squeezed lemons while I watch. It must have a delicate balance of sweet and thirst-quenching sour. And it shouldn't cost an arm and a leg.

This could be a possible trend, I decided, or at least a trendlet: A fresh-squeezed lemonade is made of natural ingredients, after all, and it has retro appeal - all part of what America likes in 2006. Surely someone in this town is taking it a step further and making watermelon lemonade or serving it in a martini glass.

Or not.

I started my search for the perfect lemonade in Hampden - not at Cafe Hon, but across the street at Hometown Girl's replica of an old-fashioned pharmacy soda fountain. As a child I used to get my best fresh-squeezed lemonades at Kearn's Drugstore, served in a milkshake glass with a maraschino cherry on top. But that was in another state and in another century.

Unfortunately, you can't get lemonade at Hometown Girl's soda fountain. Trendy espresso drinks, yes. Lemonade, no. I crossed 36th Street to Cafe Hon.

Day One 94 degrees

Cafe Hon -- $3.25 --

What I love about lemonade at Cafe Hon, 1002 W. 36th St., is that you can drink it sitting at the counter. It comes in a real glass in properly nostalgic surroundings. It may or may not matter to you that while the Hon's lemonade tastes fine and fresh, it's made in advance (that morning, to be exact). Have it with a chicken-salad sandwich on white bread, and a good-old-days sort of happiness steals over you.

The price seems steep to me, but the waitress refills my glass without my asking, the way she would if I had ordered iced tea, and she doesn't charge me.

Day Two 87 degrees

Nina's -- $1.75 --

Nina's is the little coffee shop catty-cornered to the Sun building at Calvert and Centre streets. There seems to be a shortage of places in the city that make fresh lemonade; otherwise, I probably wouldn't include it. I'd like it to remain my secret.

At Nina's, the lemons are squeezed while you watch. You can have your drink mixed with sugar syrup or artificial sweetener. You can ask for more lemon juice or less, and more ice or less. Half the squeezed lemon goes in the glass - maybe because the essential oils add more flavor, or maybe just because it looks good.

Given the price, if this were Consumer Reports, I would have to label Nina's lemonade a Best Buy.

Day Three 99 degrees

Oasis -- $2.75 -- Sweetened; Unsweetened

After a long walk to Harborplace on the hottest day of the year so far, I'm so ready for lemonade. Oasis, a stand on the first floor of the Light Street Pavilion, seems to be the only place in the complex where you can get it freshly squeezed. Interestingly, both sweetened and unsweetened are offered. I soon understand why.

The lemons are squeezed after you order. So far, so good. The guy behind the counter adds sugar and shakes everything vigorously between two cups. The problem here is quality control. My lemonade is gaggingly sweet - so sweet I toss it and go back for an unsweetened, which I doctor to taste.

Day Four 97 degrees

Earth's Essence -- $2.50 --

Earth's Essence is the juice bar connected to Planet Produce in the Belvedere Market. When the fruit and vegetable stand has organic lemons for sale, your lemonade will be made with them. But it doesn't always have organic lemons. It's the luck of the draw.

I'm startled to see that the person at the counter is making my lemonade with two whole lemons. She washes them (a step I wish more places would take because half the squeezed lemon often ends up in the glass) and grinds them, rind and all, in the juicer. The ground-up lemons are whirred in a blender with superfine sugar, crushed ice and water.

The amount of sugar she has to add to counteract the sourness of two lemons with rind is staggering, but the results are great. It's an intensely lemony experience, although I kind of miss having whole ice cubes that melt as you drink.

Day Five 82 degrees

Stone Mill Bakery -- $2.35 --

It's early morning and already sweltering. I'm disappointed to find that Stone Mill's brown-sugar lemonade isn't made with fresh lemons, but at least the guy behind the counter is upfront about the fact that Greenspring Station's high-end bakery uses bottled lemon juice. He mixes up the lemonade every morning, he tells me, with brown sugar and spring water. He promises I'll love it.

And I do love it - or, anyway, like it a lot - because it's the perfect balance of sweet and sour, and the slice of lemon floating in it lets me pretend it's fresh. The jury is still out on whether brown sugar is an improvement. Let's call its faint caramelizing influence an interesting variation.

Later on Day Five 92 degrees

Oriole Park at Camden Yards -- $3.75 --

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