Tasty bargains abounded in 2006 dining


December 28, 2006|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,special to the sun

From Korean barbecue to thin-crust pizza to standout crab cakes, the Baltimore area is fertile hunting ground for diners with big appetites but small funds.

It seems that bargains are available everywhere, in just about every culinary category. It's just a matter of knowing where to look.

Here are some of my favorite places for inexpensive and delicious food from the past year of reviews.

At Shin Chon Gardens (8801 Baltimore National Pike, Ellicott City, 410-461-3280), the marinated meat is cooked in grills built right into the tables. While the food sizzles, diners nibble on about a dozen little side dishes, including kimchi and a fantastic salad of earthy mushroom slices. Japanese fare like sushi and tempura are also on the menu.

Iggies, 818 N. Calvert St., 410-528-0818. Thin-crust pizza, a few pasta choices and yummy salads are just about all that's on the menu at this instantly trendy restaurant. The centerpiece of the brightly painted space is a long communal table, where customers can meet new friends while eating the crunchy pies, topped with such combos as tomato, spinach and parmesan.

Soup's on at Rose's Cookies, 842 W. 36th St., 410-235-9801. This tiny Hampden eatery serves just a few salads and soups a day, taking cues from what's in season. It shares space with a bakery offering lime bars, gingersnaps and other homey treats.

Tusk Lounge, 924 N. Charles St., 410-547-8485. The upstairs lounge of the venerated Brass Elephant offers an edited menu at much lower prices. But if you're not in the mood for the shellfish risotto or filet of beef with a mission fig glaze, you can order from the regular menu as well. Save room for a s'more napoleon, made with Godiva chocolate pate.

Koco's Pub and Grill, 4301 Harford Road, 410-426-3519. Crab cakes are as common in these parts as french fries, served everywhere from the dinkiest corner pub to the fanciest candlelit restaurants. So when one stands out, that's really something. The crab cakes at Koco's are truly special - as big as softballs, with gently charred exteriors and moist throughout, with fresh-tasting enormous lumps of meat.

Ras Doobie da Chef, 213 Penn St., 410-752-3896. Island favorites like oxtail stew and curried goat come with a helping of friendly Jamaican service at this bright little restaurant with only eight tables but plenty of bright atmosphere. You'll leave with a smile, and with most of your money still in your wallet.

Flying Avocado Cafe, 10210 S. Dolfield Road, Owings Mills, 443-471-2600. Any restaurant that serves food loaded with nuts, seeds and tofu runs the risk of becoming a spoonful of medicine kind of place. But this sunny cafe, to its great credit, is thoroughly enjoyable. The owners leave out the preaching and just serve healthy, delicious food like marinated flank steak salad and pesto chicken sandwiches.

Joe's Squared Bar and Pizza, 133 W. North Ave., 410-545-0444. Amazing sourdough crust and unusual ingredients elevate the subs and pizzas here to high art. The Joe's version of a cheese steak features thin slices of marinated and roasted meat instead of the usual chopped beef, asiago cheese in place of Velveeta, caramelized onions and roasted red peppers for flavor, and lettuce, tomatoes and mayo to round out the dance of flavors.

Clarence's Taste of New Orleans, 2131 Old Edgewood Road, Edgewood, 410-612-0700. New Orleans native Clarence Hill, chef and owner of this casual bar and restaurant, believes that if a little spice is good, more is better. Classic Crescent City dishes like jambalaya, oysters po'boy and grilled catfish are taste-bud-tingling treats.

Yes, there are cheap cheese steaks everywhere, but the ones at South Street Steaks (7313B Baltimore Ave., College Park, 301-209-7007) are worth the drive. The young owners, two of whom hail from Philadelphia, take their sandwiches so seriously, they have posted rules. Don't even ask for Swiss cheese. American and provolone are acceptable - barely, but salty, molten Velveeta is the topping of choice.

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