Wednesday, July 9, 2008
DJ Batman (real name Mike Beatty) knows Ocean City. For 28 years, he has spun the tunes at countless clubs and gigs along this nine-mile stretch of shore. The 59-year-old Baltimore native hosts the popular weekend radio show "Hair of the Dog" on Ocean 98 FM, as well as a weekly show about Ocean City happenings on cable TV. So when Travel staff writer Carol Sottili set out to find the best food along the 2.5-mile-long boardwalk, she appealed to Beatty. A few thousand calories later, he had her convinced that locals know best. Here's a cholesterol-laden insider's tour.
O ne thing about DJ Batman's Ocean City boardwalk: You're never far from a meal, or a handshake.
Beatty's years of boardwalk munching have pinpointed two food epicenters along the boardwalk, places where you can waddle just a few steps in any direction and consume everything from eggs to tacos. One anchors the south end of the boardwalk on Wicomico Street. The other is at 16th Street, where we pick up a couple of beach cruisers at Jack's Bike Rentals to start our journey south.
On the north corner of 16th and the boards (OC-speak for the boardwalk) is the Oceanview Grill, Beatty's favorite breakfast place. "I get what they call 'Batman's Buffet,' " Beatty says on a recent Monday morning. "One pancake, three very over-easy eggs on top of the pancake, two sausages, a short order of chipped beef, toast to dunk into the eggs, and coffee." He adds: "Oh, and if I'm not on a diet, chocolate milk."
On the south side of 16th is Peppers Tavern, which bills itself as a "five-star dive." "Pedro is in the kitchen putting out the Mexican food," Beatty says. "It's the real deal. Unbelievable seviche." Plus, the make-your-own bloody marys are great fun.
Right next door is Franco's, a modest, set-back storefront that Beatty promises serves one of the best mushroom pizzas anywhere. "I never had mushrooms on my pizza until I tried Franco's," Beatty says. "He marinates them. As soon as it opens, you see locals and workers lining up to pick up their pizzas. I eat here four times a week." Being an Italian from New York, I'm skeptical. But the mushroom pizza, with its thin crust and light marinara sauce, is the real deal.
We finally get on our bikes and pedal south along the wooden walk, but it's slow going as we're stopped constantly by other locals. And we don't have much time to spare, as bikes have to be off the boardwalk by 10 a.m. during summer. A Desert Storm vet named Chris talks to Beatty about their respective military service. Betty of Surfin' Betty's Beach Bar comes out to say hi. Jim Mathias, former mayor and now a delegate in the state legislature, stops to chat, saying, "I call Mike the nighttime mayor of Ocean City."
We finally make it to Fausto's Bistro on 12th Street. "This is the best place for brick oven pizza," Beatty says. "He had two guys come over from Italy to teach the staff the ins and outs of doing the dough for this type of wood-burning oven."
Next door is the Brass Balls Saloon, where cooling mists waft over the boardwalk-front tables. "They serve a bodacious biscuit," Beatty says. "It's rumored that even a seagull can't finish a whole one. It's that big. Plus, they very quietly serve the best ribs maybe in the entire town."
Back on our bikes, we cross First Street and ride by Tony's, my favorite boardwalk pizza joint, which also offers the bonus of rooftop seating.
A block later, we smell Fisher's Popcorn before we see it. "To me, the smell of Ocean City is a combination of Fisher's popcorn, Coppertone and creosote from the boardwalk," Beatty says as we inhale the popcorn fumes.
The boardwalk population gets suddenly denser as we hit Beatty's second food nucleus, at Wicomico Street. Within smelling distance of the benches that face the arcades are many of Ocean City's food legends: Thrasher's Fries, the Atlantic Stand, Cork Bar, Dumser's Dairyland, Dolle's Candyland and Boog Powell's Barbeque. Collectively, they've been in business for more than 400 years.
While scarfing down wonderfully greasy cheeseburgers at the Atlantic Stand, which locals call the A Stand, Beatty shares an insider tip: Thrasher's doesn't serve ketchup with its fries. But you can walk across the boardwalk to the A Stand and buy a tiny bottle of ketchup for $1.07. And then a history lesson: The Atlantic Stand was the original Alaska stand, which opened in 1933. But now it has new owners, so the son of the original owners now runs the Alaska Stand on Ninth Street and the boardwalk. Both, Beatty opines, offer "cheeseburgers in paradise."
"I have never ordered my cheeseburgers to go," Beatty says. "Part of it is sitting on a bench eating with the people walking by, the noise, the sound of the arcade games. That's the beauty of it."
We pass by a place called simply Bar that has been there since 1940. Beatty points his finger with his thumb up, saying, "If you're a local, you just do that and say Bar and everyone knows where you mean."
Finally, we are at the end of the boardwalk at Harrison's Harbor Watch Restaurant. Beatty has one last tip to share. "Sit at the bar and order the oyster stew. They shuck the oysters right into the stew. Each bartender has a different touch, and each one takes great pride in their particular stew."
A few days later, I dip my spoon into the oyster stew, after watching bartender Brad "Bowtie" Schaeffer cook up the concoction of cream, sherry, onions, green peppers, assorted spices and fresh shucked oysters. The first mouthful has me guiltily calculating the calories. "It's Atkins-friendly," Schaeffer offers. Well, in that case . . . I stop just short of licking the bowl.