Westminster gaining appetite for more ethnic restaurants

August 05, 2007|By Laura McCandlish | Laura McCandlish,Sun Reporter

The culinary landscape in downtown Westminster is changing.

The city's first Middle Eastern restaurant serves pita sandwiches of roasted chicken shawarma, fried falafel and baba ghanouj.

Diners with a hankering for panang curry and phad Thai will find those dishes at another Main Street restaurant.

Authentic meals like carne asada and chilaquiles verdes con pollo are also popular at a new downtown Mexican spot.

These three new ethnic restaurants that opened along Westminster's Main Street in the past year demonstrate that tastes and demographics are gradually changing in the predominantly white Carroll County seat.

The new spots are not the only options; they join an established Italian grocery that also sells Polish pierogies and kielbasa and a more recent Mexican market on Main Street.

A flood of national chain restaurants along Route 140 and more traditional food offerings still predominate in Westminster. But creating a diverse dining district could lure more residents, workers -- and possibly tourists -- to eat and shop in the more historic downtown, said Stan Ruchlewicz, Westminster's director of economic development.

"Look at what we have to offer: not a chain in sight," Ruchlewicz said while lunching at Semiramis Grill, the new Middle Eastern stand that opened on Main Street in mid-June. "We've just got to promote it, both locally and outside the county."

Opening the kebab shop provided a change of pace for Jim Gabry, an Egyptian immigrant who lives in Montgomery County and had done Internet consulting work.

Gabry, who previously ran a restaurant with his brothers in Virginia, said that Middle Eastern food can appeal to people from a range of cultures.

"What is the only thing Arabs and Israelis agree on? Shawarma," Gabry said, basting the cone of chicken roasting upright on a rotating spit. "That's the reason I came here. If Arabs and Israelis can agree on it, that means the rest of the world can, too."

Ken Myers, a retired accountant who lives two blocks from Semiramis, lunched on a chicken gyro there on a recent Friday. He was one of the few customers sitting at the stand's umbrella-shaded picnic tables, the only available seating at the takeout restaurant.

Semiramis is situated on the corner of a busy intersection, and there aren't many parking spaces nearby, Myers added.

"Is somebody going to walk four blocks to get a kebab when they don't even know what a kebab is?" said Myers, 59. "If they could get a place to park, they might try it."

The homemade falafel lured Janet Medina, a vegetarian, to the Middle Eastern stand. A Columbia resident who teaches at McDaniel College in Westminster, Medina said she appreciates the culinary variety that she has grown accustomed to in Howard County.

"A lot of us are very excited about more ethnic restaurants," Medina, 53, said of her McDaniel colleagues. "Things are growing in this area."

The restaurant market in Westminster has changed substantially since Carroll County Commissioner Dean L. Minnich first moved to town in the early 1960s.

He said he remembers when the first chain restaurants -- McDonald's and then Roy Rogers -- came to town. The recent ethnic venues are just the latest immigrant-run restaurants to open downtown, Minnich added.

Westminster's oldest downtown restaurant, Harry's, is a Main Street staple started by a Greek immigrant family in 1946.

"This kind of diversity and activity on Main Street, it's part of a continuing tradition in Westminster," Minnich said.

But attracting a steady stream of customers downtown is a challenge, Ruchlewicz concedes, as rehabilitation efforts aim to fill lingering vacancies.

The state Department of Housing and Community Development offers low-interest loans to help finance the expansion or startup of small businesses, such as restaurants in vacant neighborhood buildings.

Such loans have been used by other restaurants to rehabilitate historic buildings in Westminster, said Kevin Baynes, state coordinator of the Main Street Maryland program.

"It's economic restructuring within the context of historic preservation," Baynes said. "The emergence of restaurants in general is a good way to gauge the health of a Main Street."

Thai Classic III, the restaurant that Surachai Vongvight and his wife, Rachanee Somkhaoyai opened on Main Street, follows other Thai places the extended family runs in Eldersburg and Owings Mills. The sit-down restaurant is busiest during dinner hours, Vongvight said.

But a table of four information technology specialists who work at the nearby Random House distribution center said they lunch at the restaurant every couple of weeks. It's the only place they eat downtown, said Josh Crone, 31, finishing an order of phad Thai with chicken and shrimp.

Jos? Alejandrez, a native of Oaxaca, Mexico, and his wife, Trish, opened Papa Joe's Mexican restaurant in April after closing the deli and hot dog restaurant they ran in the Westminster Antique Mall.

Jos? Alejandrez and his two brothers, David and Armando Alejandrez, have promoted their restaurant within Westminster's growing Hispanic community, which has started congregating there on Saturdays.

But Papa Joe's also attracts American-born residents.

Carol Kolb of Westminster and her friend Elaine Foard of Towson lunched on steak tacos with fresh salsa and guacamole. Filled with seasoned steak strips instead of ground beef, the tacos reminded Foard, 59, of the cuisine she had on a trip to Cancun.

When Kolb, 51, first moved to Westminster 15 years ago, she said lunch spots were few and far between.

"It's great to have this and the other restaurants right on Main Street," Kolb said. "Now we just need one more: a good Indian restaurant."

laura.mccandlish@baltsun.com

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