Monday, September 26, 2022

Favorite Baltimore Restaurants, Round Two

A few years back, when asked about our favorite restaurants, I would usually respond "Grace Garden." GG was/is a Chinese restaurant in Odenton, MD--kind of a slog from where we live near Towson, but so worth the drive. We went a few times a year over a number of years, and we wrote about it more than once (here, here, here, here, and here). Though the restaurant still exists, it's under new management with a new chef. We tried it once early on and it just didn't move us in the same way. The new owners bought several of the original chef's recipes, but what we tried was missing the wok hay (breath of the wok) of the originals. (IYKYK!) Now we have multiple new favorites, all much closer to home. Coincidentally, all three of the restaurants named below are alongside the Jones Falls, an 18-mile-long stream that runs from Baltimore County to the Inner Harbor. Not sure why we haven't done a progressive dinner yet, hitting all three at one night, though I must admit we have eaten at two of them on the same evening.

patatas, empanadas, calamari, et., al., @ La Cuchara

La Cuchara (3600 Clipper Mill Rd, Baltimore, MD 21211)

This cavernously sized yet somehow intimate restaurant serves dishes inspired by the Basque cuisine of parts of France and Spain. The menu is divided into sections featuring several categories of small plates, plus entrees, and one is able to mix and match as desired. The several entrees we've tried over the years have been uniformly delicious, but we prefer to order several tapas-style dishes and enjoy them with one or more glasses of wine, preferably at the expansive bar. While I miss the days pre-COVID when happy hour meant half price pinxtos and tapas and $5 pours of wine, the food is just as good at twice the price. 

If one is merely feeling peckish and just wants a few snacks to nibble with cocktails, there is a selection of Spanish hams and cheeses that are perfect with the restaurant's lovely housemade breads. Also nibbly things like gildas--small skewers with a single boquerone (white anchovy), olive, and pequillo pepper--and wee croquetas made with cured ham or rehydrated salted cod. Tapas selections are fairly hearty and can include tender tangles of grilled squid with calabrian peppers, a couple of salad selections and perhaps a soup, and patatas bravas--crisp cubes of potato dressed in both spicy mojo and garlicky aioli and accented with scallions. I check the menu regularly in case there are limited-time items like sweetbreads, crispy oysters, soft shell crabs, or razor clams, in which case we scrap our regular dinner plan and head to La Cuchara. 

The photo above was taken in the Fall of 2020. The restaurant was only serving hot food during happy hour a few days a week, and only at ten concrete tables set up in the parking lot. We made a point to get there a few minutes before 5pm to snag a table and eat as much as humanly possible. We did this for about 8 weeks in the late summer and fall, until it was too chilly (and too dark) to eat outdoors comfortably. During this time, the restaurant also offered chef-prepared food to heat up at home and grocery staples like toilet paper and bags of flour. I greatly admired La Cuchara's efforts to stay open and serve their customers and did my part to support them. We are so happy to have them back open full time again. 

pasta, whole fish, lamb chops @ Cosima

Cosima (Mill No. 1, 3000 Falls Rd, Baltimore, MD 21211)

I think we fell in love with Cosima on our very first visit back in December 2015. We try to eat there at least once a year, particularly in the more temperate months when we can snag a table on the back patio. In fact, we've celebrated Mr Minx's birthday at Cosima every year for at least the last five, including 2020. 

While we're fond of the location--Mill No. 1, an historic mill building tucked between Falls Road and the Jones Falls itself--the food of course is the restaurant's most important feature. The homemade pastas are a big draw for Mr Minx, and as I mentioned in the last post, I'm fond of their pizzas. In fact, if the scallop and bacon pie is on the menu, it's definitely on our table, along with the crispy brussels sprouts, fritto misto, and whatever octopus preparation is being offered. We normally get one pasta and one secondi to share between the three of us, if there's any room left after our orgy of apps. And keep the wine flowing--but let me have a negroni bianco, too. 

the chef, the shucker, the farmer @ True Chesapeake

True Chesapeake Oyster Company (3300 Clipper Mill Rd Suite 400, Baltimore, MD 21211) 

True Chesapeake opened its doors in the fall of 2019 and got in a handful of months before the pandemic hit and threw the restaurant industry into a tailspin. They closed for a bit, reopened for outdoor dining and take-out, then closed again for the winter. We waited with our fingers crossed and breath bated for a re-opening announcement, which happened in April 2021 and came with a vaccination requirement. Not only was the food at True Chesapeake still delicious, but also the management was smart. The restaurant was our new annual New Year's Eve dining tradition and we wanted to continue slurping oysters to close out the years for the foreseeable future. 

There are a number of things we love about this place. Oysters are the heart and soul of True Chesapeake. The namesake restaurant gets its tender bivalves from its own farm in St. Mary's County. Blue catfish and snakehead are also featured regularly. If you've read our book Maryland's Chesapeake, you know these are invasive species that are doing a number on the Bay. Chef Zack Mills--long a favorite of ours since his days at Wit & Wisdom, and a contributor to more than one of our books--is doing his part to eradicate these harmful creatures by serving up their tasty flesh in various ways. And while seafood makes up the majority of dishes on Chef Mills' menu, he throws non-seafood-eaters a bone or two with selections like steak, roast chicken, and one heck of a good burger. 

* Any products in this post that are mentioned by name may have been provided to Minxeats by the manufacturer. However, all opinions belong to Minxeats. Amazon links earn me $! Please buy!

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Monday, September 19, 2022

Stuffing My Face in New York - Day Two

I did and didn't eat as much on Day Two as I did on Day One. I ate fewer meals, but the sandwich I had for lunch was honestly enough food for the entire day. Read on.

My regular NY breakfast habit is a stroll down to Dominique Ansel Workshop in Flatiron. I've never been to the original bakery on Spring Street so have never eaten a Cronut. But I have eaten gingerbread croissants, pear tarts, canele, and kouign amann at his Workshop. This time I tried a coffee creme brulee pull-apart bun, made with the same laminated dough as most of his pastries, filled with a blob of coffee cream and topped with a wee creme brulee. Sweet, crispy, creamy deliciousness. I love that they serve La Colombe coffee, a brand out of Philly, and had one with some oat milk, which I sipped as I sat at an outdoor table and watched a crew of people unload what looked like pieces of a set from an enormous truck.

Daisy and I had both recently read about All'antico Vinaio, a Florentine import that opened last November on 8th Ave near Times Square. Though I had wanted to eat mostly Asian cuisines on this visit, after I looked at their menu, I was game for an Italian sandwich. La Paradiso, in particular, caught my eye--mortadella, pistachios, a pesto-like pistachio cream, and stracchiatella (fresh mozzarella soaked in cream) layered between slices of schiacciata, a bread that seemed the love child of focaccia and ciabatta. I thought we could share a sandwich, since these babies appeared to be around 8 inches square and 2 inches thick, but Daisy seemed shocked at the suggestion. We each ordered a sandwich and had them cut in half so we could share. Her choice was La Schiacciata Boss, with Tuscan ham, Pecorino, and truffle cream. Both sandwiches were stellar, with great bread, just crusty enough on the outside, and tasty fillings.  

top: Boss, bottom: Paradise

After that massive lunch, I just wanted a nap; instead we hopped on a bus for a trip to sniff fragrances downtown. We spent quite a bit of time at Mizensir, a narrow boutique filled with the creations of master perfumer Alberto Morillas. He is the creator of familiar fragrances like CK One, Acqua di Gio, and Marc Jacobs Daisy, as well as Must de Cartier, Penhaligon's Iris Prima, and Thierry Mugler Cologne. My rather vast collection of scents includes those last three, and may well include a Mizensir fragrance in the future.

At some point, Daisy suggested we stop for tacos, and I looked at her like she had three heads. I was still working off that colossal bologna sandwich! I did find enough room for a tiny bit of gelato from Gentile. I noticed that they had sorbetto flavored with chinotto, a variety of bitter citrus popular in Italy. Recently I sampled fragrances from Abaton, which specializes in scents made with the fruit, and was curious to taste it. To balance the icy sorbet, I also got some plain fior de latte gelato.

Later that evening, we stopped into the new Manhattan outpost of Nan Xiang, a Flushing, Queens favorite for xiao long bao, aka soup dumplings. Daisy chose the popular pork version of the dumplings, and I went for the Lucky Six combination platter that included pork, chicken, scallop and pork, pork and crab, pork and truffle, and gourd/shrimp/pork. While the oversized dumplings were tasty, the wrappers were somewhat uneven and doughy in places. Still, I enjoyed them, though I really didn't need any more food at that point.

It's amazing I got any sleep at all on this trip, with all the food I ate so late in the day. Perhaps my body was simply exhausted from all the digesting it had to do? Or maybe the 44,000 steps I walked in three days had something to do with it.

If you missed Day One, you can find it here.
Read about my sole meal on Day Three here.

* Any products in this post that are mentioned by name may have been provided to Minxeats by the manufacturer. However, all opinions belong to Minxeats. Amazon links earn me $! Please buy!

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Monday, September 12, 2022

Favorite Baltimore Restaurants, Round One

I had a request for a listicle, and you know I aim to please! Not really, but anyway...Instagram follower and friend, Mark, wanted a list of our favorite restaurants for various food styles. In a city like Baltimore, that's semi-difficult. There aren't multiples of restaurants that fit in any one category like there are in cities like NY or even DC. And while Mr Minx and I ate a lot of restaurant meals 10 years ago, back then we were doing research for our books. With the pandemic still influencing the dining world (yes, there is still a pandemic out there, even if most of us want to forget about it), we tend to visit the same handful of restaurants, most of which are not very far away from where we live. I am hard-pressed to list even three of our favorite French restaurants because we haven't been to more than three in the last 5 years or so (not that there are many more than three).Tell you what I'm gonna do: I'll make up a bunch of random categories that could have three contenders and list them here for you. And for Mark. 

Let's start with an easy one.

spicy wontons in red oil at Red Pepper

Top 3 Favorite Chinese Restaurants

Just a few years ago, this category would have been impossible. While there are tons of mom-and-pop Chinese carry-outs in the Baltimore area, I wouldn't say any of the ones I've visited were great. And larger-scale restaurants like Szechuan House in Timonium were just...ok. (I know that restaurant had a lot of fans, which was perplexing.) If Mr Minx and I wanted really good Chinese food, we had to schlep out to Odenton for Grace Garden or to Catonsville for Hunan Taste.  But now there are three relatively new restaurants in the northern Baltimore County area, each with its own strengths.

1. Red Pepper - Pretty much everything here is spicy-hot, so not for wimpy palates. The menu is fairly long and somewhat exotic, featuring dishes made with rabbit, intestines, and kidney. But also plenty of delicious pork, chicken, and beef options. When we're in the mood for ma la, we go to Red Pepper. We've never had a disappointing meal here. (11 Allegheny Ave, Towson, MD 21204)

2. Asian Kebab & Hot Pot - We were sad when Hunan Taste suddenly closed, but overjoyed when that restaurant's owners opened Asian Kebab much closer to us. While cooking skewers of meat and dunking bits of this and that into bubbling tabletop hot pots can be fun, the kitchen dishes are excellent and not to be missed. The ma po tofu is outrageously good, and we have enjoyed the pea shoots and Kung Pao chicken as well. (1414 York Rd, Lutherville Timonium, MD, 21093)

3. Kung Fu 12 - This restaurant replaced Szechuan House and we found it a welcome change. Everything was remodeled, from the decor to the food. The menu is a nice blend of Chinese restaurant favorites like beef broccoli and moo shu pork with more authentic dishes like boiled spicy fish, sin chew rice noodles (aka Singapore noodles), and beer-cooked duck. I really enjoy the Shanghai braised pork belly and the salt and pepper squid. (1427 York Road, Timonium, MD, 21093)

Honorable mention: The Orient in Perry Hall serves plenty of classic American-style Chinese dishes, but also excellent Singapore noodles, salt-and-pepper shrimp, and crispy sesame eggplant. Portions are generous and we're always happy with leftovers. (9545 Belair Rd, Nottingham, MD 21236)

salmon at La Calle

Top 3 Favorite Mexican Restaurants

I love Mexican and Tex-Mex food and attempt to make it at home fairly regularly with varying degrees of success. Or, more accurately, I add Mexican flavors to a dish that might not be Mexican in origin. There are several Mexican restaurants in our area, many seeming to cater too much to gringo tastes. My number one complaint about those restaurants is that meats can be under-seasoned and dry. (I almost always regret ordering chicken.)

1. La Calle - It's good to have at least one upscale Mexican place in the area, serving foods other than tacos and burritos (though they do offer tacos). This pretty restaurant, on the edge of Baltimore's business district, consistently has the best salmon in town. I know, because I've ordered it at least ten of the dozen times I've eaten there. The skin is always crisp, the meat done to that perfectly "blubbery" texture (thanks to Tyler Florence for that apt descriptor), with just the right amount of seasoning and sauce, and an interesting veg accompaniment in the broccolini. Everything else we've tried there is very good, including the ceviches, the sandwiches, and yes, the tacos. (10 South St, Baltimore, MD 21202)

2. R&R Taqueria - When my Dad was in assisted living in the White Marsh area, we went to R&R quite a bit. While he preferred the more safe taco fillings, like carnitas and chicken tinga, I always went for the offal. Lengua (beef tongue), buche (pig stomach), and cabeza (cow head, no longer offered), were my favorites, all stewed to tenderness but not without a little texture. I am also a fan of their fluffy and light tamales, which I get smothered in not-too-spicy mole sauce, and the torta with milanesa de res (breaded and fried beef cutlets). (5005 Honeygo Center Dr, Perry Hall, MD 21128)

3. El Salto - This local mini-chain offers the stuff we 'muricans grew up eating: hard-shell tacos with ground beef or shredded chicken; taco salads; platters featuring various combos of enchiladas, burritos, and tacos; addictive queso con chorizo with thin crispy tortilla chips; nachos. But their large menu also includes egg dishes, chilaquiles, shrimp dishes, fajitas, and a T-bone steak. We get something different every time, but I am partial to the chicken tamales topped with more chicken, and the chiles rellenos. (8816 Waltham Woods Rd, Parkville, MD 21234)

Honorable mentions: La Food Marketa. This inauthentic, white man's version of the foods of Mexico and other Latin American countries can't be called a true Mexican restaurant, but everything from the tacos to the reuben quesadilla tastes great. We like to order several of their interesting apps and a sangria and call it dinner. The loaded yuca fries are a must-try. (2620 Quarry Lake Dr, Baltimore, MD 21209) Fiesta Mexicana has not only tortas but also pambazo, in which the buns are coated with a spicy chile sauce. And they're the only place I know of that makes quesadillas with fried masa, rather than with flour tortillas. But their taco meat is often dry and chewy. (8436 Philadelphia Rd, Rosedale, MD 21237).

pepperoni deliciousness from Hersh's

Top 5 Favorite Pizza Joints

Here's another category that would have had very few contenders just a handful of years ago. My best friend in high school loved pizza, so I ate a lot of it in the 80s. It was mostly bad, with thick doughy crusts called "hand-tossed," or "fresh dough." As if pizza made with anything other than hand-tossed fresh dough was worth eating. However, no amount of tossing is going to make bad, underbaked, pizza good. (I'm looking at you, Papa John's, Domino's, Pizza Hut, et. al.) There are a few local joints that were popular back then and are still around today, though I have only eaten in a handful. I have determined that I prefer thin crust pizzas with somewhat esoteric toppings. Mr Minx likes NY-style pies with thin crusts that crack when folded, smothered in good old-fashioned pepperoni. There are so many good pizzas around now that it was hard to pick three. You get five, and several honorable mentions.

1. Hersh's - Hersh's Neapolitan pies cook for a mere 90 seconds at 800F in their wood-fired oven--long enough to produce beautiful leopard-spotted thin crusts just sturdy enough to hold interesting toppings like smoked mozzarella and fried eggplant (my favorite), or kale and pistachios. A shame it's so far away and requires a drive through the city, or we'd eat there often. (1843-45 Light St, Baltimore, MD 21230) 

2. Squire's - We've been eating pies from Squire's since we were little kids. The sturdy crisp crust and herby sweet sauce are quite unique to this Dundalk restaurant, making it a pizza like no other. They pile on the toppings, especially on our usual order, "everything, hold the green peppers." Their meatballs are excellent, too. (6723 Holabird Ave, Baltimore, MD 21222)

3. Earth, Wood, & Fire - This place has become our go-to. We eat in the bar, as it's usually a child-free space, and always order a large Lorenzo salad with whatever it is we get for an entree. Sometimes it's wings, dry-rubbed and meaty--and once in a while a very good burger. But our favorite food option is the pizza. When they first opened, EWF's crusts were whisper-thin and crackery, but they've thickened nicely to something in between NY and Naples. I like all of their regular selections, but am happiest when they offer their jambalaya pie as a special. Loaded with shrimp, blackened chicken, andouille sausage, fresh jalapenos, provolone, mozz, and cheddar cheese on a red-sauced crust, this pizza has a lot of flavor. (1407 Clarkview Rd, Baltimore, MD 21209)

4. Paulie Gee's - Paulie Gee's is fancy and expensive, serving small pies with interesting toppings, meaty and otherwise, that are blasted in their imported Italian wood oven. They also have deck oven pies that are just as good and crispy as their original pizzas. They seem to offer either one or the other but not both on any given day. Also, this place is paradise for vegans, or the lactose-intolerant, or weirdos who like the taste of vegan sausage and non-dairy cheese.  (3535 Chestnut Ave, Baltimore, MD 21211) 

5. Il Basilico - The pizzas at Il Basilico are no-nonsense NY-style pies with mostly classic toppings, but also a couple with things like bbq chicken or chicken, bacon, and ranch. (Not sure why ranch dressing needs to be anywhere near a pizza, unless it's on a side salad, but I assume somebody enjoys such atrocities.) Their pasta dishes are all good, too. (49 W Aylesbury Rd, Timonium, MD 21093)

Honorable Mentions: We've only tried one pizza at Walker's Tap & Table, the Big Mac, but it was delish. Need to get back and try more. (2465 MD-97, Glenwood, MD 21738) We've tried several at Cosima, and my fave is the cape sante, with scallops, bacon, and pesto. If this was a Top 10, Cosima would be on it. (Mill No. 1, 3000 Falls Rd, Baltimore, MD 21211) Ledo pizza almost isn't actual pizza, more like a savory pastry. Love the cannonball, topped with halved meatballs. (Over 100 locations in the Mid-Atlantic region, and coming soon to 1238 Putty Hill Road, Towson, MD 21286.) Birroteca (1520 Clipper Rd, Baltimore, MD 21211) would also make a Top 10 list, as would Ribaldi's.(3600 Keswick Rd, Baltimore, MD 21211), so why isn't this a Top 10 when there are 5 honorable mentions? Because I'm tired of writing this post... Back with more categories eventually.

* Any products in this post that are mentioned by name may have been provided to Minxeats by the manufacturer. However, all opinions belong to Minxeats. Amazon links earn me $! Please buy!

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Monday, September 05, 2022

Stuffing My Face in New York - Day One

My eating adventures in New York have been a regular feature on Minxeats for years. Check out the posts found here, here, here, here, here, here, and so on. Neal and I always ate well when we visited NYC, but since I met my friend Daisy in 2017, food consumption has gone up quite a bit. When Daisy and I get together, we may have 2-3 full meals, a couple of snacks, and a stop for drinks in an 8-hour period. Now, it's not constant eating; we do pop into various shops and boutiques that seem interesting, and always make time to sniff perfumes. But still--it's a lot of food consumed in a relatively short amount of time.

On my most recent trip, I met up with Daisy at Golden Diner. It's located in Chinatown, and the location reflects on the otherwise typical diner-style dishes. I ordered the chicken katsu club, featuring tender chicken cutlets, red cabbage slaw, blt, and bulldog sauce on the typical myriad slices of toast. Daisy had the Chinatown egg & cheese sando, the NY standby, but with exceptionally fluffy eggs on a sesame scallion milk bun. Now that I peruse the menu again, I kinda wish I had ordered the Thai Cobb, partly because of the clever name but also because it sounds delicious. 

Let me backtrack a minute. The Golden Diner meal was at about 3:30pm on a Sunday. I had arrived in NY noon-ish, and after tucking my bags safely away with the hotel porter, I headed to a Thai restaurant near Penn Station called Random Access. I'd wanted to eat there for a while and had even made a reservation the last time I was in town, but plans changed.  This time, I was able to satisfy my curiosity about the place with an order of sriracha lime dumplings and an egg pancake. The former comprised steamed chicken dumplings with a spicy mayo, plus cilantro, red pepper, shallots, and coconut. The latter was a roti flatbread merged with an omelet, topped with squid, mussels, bean sprouts, kale, coconut, and a sweet sriracha sauce. Both dishes hit all the right spots, and were a flavorful contrast to the rather wan Thai food I had back home in Baltimore earlier in the week.

Now back to the Daisy-led Food-O-Rama.

We wandered around a bit before visiting Michaeli Bakery. We were there for donuts, but it was too late in the day and they didn't have much of a selection. Instead, we split a rugelach. The rugelach I'm familiar with are made with a sturdy cream cheese pastry and filled with nuts, jam, chocolate, or all of the above. This one was a tiny croissant-like pastry with a chocolate filling rolled into it. It was very good, if very different.

Our next stop was King Dumplings. It used to be a "dollar dumpling" joint when it opened a couple years ago, but now the price has gone up a few bucks. Ten really good pork dumplings for less than $5 is pretty amazing though. 

If you're counting calories, we're probably at 3500 so far.

Our next stop was Kopitiam, specializing in Nonya (Chinese Malay) cuisine. I wanted to try everything on the menu, but we settled on three dishes + dessert. We tried the Nyonya Bak Zhang, a dumpling of blue and white sticky rice with minced pork, mushrooms, winter melon, and salted egg, all wrapped in a mile of some sort of leaf (banana, I'm guessing). I was expecting something yummy like one of my favorite dim sum dishes, sticky rice in lotus. Sadly, the dumpling was cold and overcooked, the salted egg yolk was dried out, and the whole of it pretty flavorless. The tok tok mee made up for it, reminding me of chow fun with its wide noodles in a dark sauce studded with pork, shrimp, and other goodies. 

The pandan chicken was also tasty. The three triangular chicken meatballs were wrapped in pandan leaves and served with a sweet chili sauce.

Asian desserts are not French pastries, so I shouldn't have been surprised when one of the items we ordered was on the gelatinous side. The kuih talam was described as salted coconut milk over a pandan cake base. Yes, those were the flavors, but the "cake" was not the western-style flour-based cake that I expected. The kuih lapis was a "1000-layer" cinnamon butter cake, rather like a crepe cake or maybe a Smith Island cake, only without any frosting. Both desserts, I think, would make a great afternoon snack with some tea.

I opposed the idea of eating a burger next, so we parked ourselves at an outdoor cafe and enjoyed an adult beverage instead. There was plenty more to eat the next day.

* Any products in this post that are mentioned by name may have been provided to Minxeats by the manufacturer. However, all opinions belong to Minxeats. Amazon links earn me $! Please buy!

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