1690 Annapolis Road, Odenton, 410-672-3581
The classic, middle-of-nowhere, hole-in-the wall Chinese restaurant that's become a destination for delicacies like braised pork belly and fish noodles (the noodles are made of fish, they're sublime). There are two menus here, insist on the traditional version.
22. El Azteca
12210 Clarksville Pike, Clarksville, 410-531-3001
Another Howard County, category-breaking restaurant. Since 1993, owner and chef Gilberto Cortes has been attracting diners here who appreciate the difference good ingredients make and who like seeing rainbow trout in garlic butter alongside the menu's tacos and burritos.
9515 Deereco Road, Timonium, 410-561-3300
There are now five Liberatore's spread across the northern counties. This is the fanciest one, worth dressing up for and worth the splurge. The menu is conservative, and the service is formal, and, although it's not inexpensive here, customers are consistently satisfied.
20. Mari Luna Mexican Grill / Mari Luna Latin Grill
102 Reisterstown Road, Pikesville, 410-486-9910
1010 Reisterstown Road, Pikesville, 410-653-5151
Everyone is mad for the Luna family's two northwest Baltimore County restaurants. The first, in a converted Carvel's ice cream shop, specializes in zesty Mexican food. The second, in Old Pikesville, expanded the culinary horizons throughout South America and brought some panache to a tired neighborhood dining scene. They're the real deal, and speaking of deals, they've both remained affordable options.
19. Tark's Grill
2360 W. Joppa Road, Lutherville-Timonium, 410-583-8275
Just when you thought nothing would ever work again in the old Harvey's spot at Green Spring Station, along came Tark's, which succeeds and pleases through a combination of focus, diligence and customer service. A smart wine list, comfortably jazzy atmosphere and an appealing, if not exactly thrilling, bistro menu round out the picture.
18. Café Troia
31 Allegheny Ave., Towson, 410-337-0133
Twenty five years and counting, Cafe Troia has survived various personnel changes and, more recently, a move across Allegheny Avenue from its long-time (although not original) home. This is serious food like osso buco alla Milanese and herb-encrusted lamb chops, served in a serious, yet uplifting, white-tablecloth dining room.
11 West Aylesbury Road, Timonium, 410-561-1100
It's now quietly established itself as a Timonium standby, which is basically a good, old-fashioned seafood house dressed up in contemporary clothes. The best bet -- the "Fish Market," the daily list of fresh-fish specials, but some folks swear up and down that Bluestone is a great steak house.
16. Trattoria Alberto
1660 Crain Highway South, Glen Burnie, 410-761-0922
Newcomers to Alberto Contestabile's strip-mall restaurant invariably arrive asking, "Are you sure this is the right place," and leave saying, "Who knew?" Lots of people know now, and the pride of Glen Burnie is still dazzling everyone who discovers it again.
15. Orchard Market & Café
8815 Orchard Tree Lane, Towson, 410-339-7700
It's been more than 20 years since Michael Mir converted his Middle-Eastern food market into the area's first Persian restaurant. And it's been almost 15 years since Mir's headwaiter Jason Bulkeley and his wife Sharareh took over. The constant has been the chef, Nahid Vaezpour. Still on the menu, the poached duck in pomegranate-walnut sauce and the stewed leg of lamb with butternut squash and dried plums (although, I think they used to call them "prunes.").
14. Restaurant Sabor
12240 Tullamore Road, Lutherville, 410-628-7227
Rodolfo ("Roddy") Domacasse's wide-ranging restaurant has settled in so nicely. Not many restaurants up here put entrees like curry and turnip lamb stew or calf's liver with Lyonnaise potatoes on the menu. Sabor does, while still turning out impeccalbe pork chops and salmon fillets.
8085 Main St., Ellicott City, 410-720-2330
A gracious addition to Main Street, this newish Italian restaurant welcomes customers with freshly considered takes on traditional Italian fare. The chef, Keith Holsey, appears equally dedicated to spaghetti and meatballs as he is monkfish osso buco and a terrific carpaccio of filet mignon.
12. Hell Point Seafood
12 Dock St., Annapolis, 410-990-9888
The owner and chef here is Bob Kinkead, of Washington, D.C.'s venerable, and somewhat stuffy, Kinkead's. But Hell Point is breezy and the menu sidesteps the reverential attitude other Annapolis restaurants have toward seafood. Kinkead actually does things with his seafood.
11. Sushi Sono
10215 Wincopin Circle, Columbia, 410-997-6131