105 W. Saratoga St. # 1, downtown
Vietnamese food has gained recognition in the last few years with proponents such as Anthony Bourdain touting its fresh, vibrant ingredients. Mekong Delta, a small family-owned restaurant, has been championing traditional Vietnamese fare while creating new dishes. If you find yourself in the modest-yet-always-full dining room, get a bowl of the pho (pronounced fuh). Rich, spicy and hearty while maintaining a clean flavor, the noodle soup is available with meat toppings such as chicken ($8.25) and beef tendon ($8.25 and owner Leo Nguyen's favorite).
In contrast to the pho are Mekong Delta's summer rolls ($3.95). These soft, rice-paper-wrapped and light and refreshing. As good as the pho is, the Vietnamese crepes ($8.95) are just as good. They are an almost-ethereal experience of crunchy, salty outsides giving way to a custardy coconut filling with shrimp.
Tip: Mekong Delta only takes cash, so make preparations.
Taqueria el Sabor del Parque
2901 Eastern Ave., Highlandtown
Mexican cooking doesn't seem exotic until you take a closer look at what this humble little taqueria on a corner across from Patterson Park puts in its tacos (most $2). While it has the standard chicken and grilled steak fillings, porky packings such as cheeks, skin, ears or lips (my favorite) are what distinguish El Sabor Del Parque's tacos from the rest of the taquerias in the area.
These tacos are soft, supple and unctuous. One bite will make you a fan. Combined with the complimentary onion, cilantro and lime, the tacos turn out bright and delicious.
Tip: Use the salsas with caution. These aren't for the meek.
Honey Pig Restaurant
10045 Baltimore National Pike, Ellicott City
eathoneypig.com or (410) 696-2426
The staff at the Honey Pig Restaurant is more than patient with first-timers. Small bowls filled with at-first-unidentifiable sides are confusing until you start to sample the savory, sweet and spicy combo of flavors from chili-infused, honey-coated potatoes, cooked bean sprouts and kimchi (spicy pickled cabbage). Think of them as free appetizers.
Don't be fooled by Honey Pig's car-garage-meets-grill look. You'll soon forget about the corrugated metal walls as soon as a boiling bowl of kimchi pork stew ($6.99) arrives. Spicy and addictive, it's a bold starter. Korean BBQ is the main attraction here, with each table having its own personal gas burner. Pork belly ($12.99) is cooked crispy on the outside while piles of marinated beef ribs ($17.99) grill next to a mound of kimchi, creating a scent that is out of this world. To wash down the spicy food, go for one of the Korean beers like Hite, Cass or O.B.
Tip: Need late-night eats? Honey Pig is open 24 hours (except 2-10 a.m. Mondays).
1100 Maryland Ave., Mount Vernon
dukemrestaurant.com or (410) 385-0318
Dukem has been introducing Ethiopian cuisine to the uninitiated for seven years. Senedu Zewdie, one of Dukem's owners, suggests the best way to get accustomed to Ethiopian cooking is to order a sampler platter.
The samplers, such as the Dukem combo #6 ($29.99), highlight many of the spicy meat recipes while also providing vegetables and homemade cheese. The food comes served on a platter lined with the Ethiopian bread injera. Diners use only the injera and hands to eat the meat stews and vegetable preparations in the sampler. The recognizable flavors run from Mexican (the beef and lamb dishes) to Polish (cabbage, potato, carrot) but with a distinct peppery-ness that only African food has. While you're there, try one of the five Ethiopian beers on the menu.
Tip: Get leftovers packaged in a take-out container in the injera, creating what I like to call the "Ethiopian Burrito."
814 S. Broadway, Fells Point
Tapasadela.com or (410) 534-6262