Baltimore is that rare city with a dish so fundamental to its culture that the food’s name is an answer to a crossword puzzle. But if the crab cake is Charm City’s calling card, it can also be a cross to bear for those planning to open a restaurant there.
The chef who dares to ignore the crab cake is the chef who risks losing the tourist searching for Baltimore’s signature dish, typically built with Chesapeake jumbo-lump crab, saltine cracker crumbs, a mayo binder and, of course, Old Bay.
“You will find that in many restaurants there is a crab cake,” says Suzanne Loudermilk, restaurant critic for the Baltimore Sun. “It’s just part of our cuisine. When people do come from out of town, they inevitably want to have a crab cake somewhere along the way.”
Such a prerequisite might seem an obstacle to a dining scene that wants to evolve. But that has not been the case in Baltimore, whose chefs and restaurants have kept pace with the innovators in Washington, perhaps even surpassing them, according to Zagat, which rated Charm City’s scene ahead of the District’s in 2015.
Baltimore already had such talents as James Beard Award winner Spike Gjerde at Woodberry Kitchen, perpetual Beard nominee Cindy Wolf at Charleston and celebrity pastry chef Duff Goldman at Charm City Cakes. But in recent years, the city has attracted such national names as Andrew Carmellini, Gordon Ramsay, John Besh and Aaron Sanchez. It has also developed a craft beer scene that ranks among the finest anywhere and has become something of a food-hall capital, supplementing its historic halls with modern ones, including R. House and Mount Vernon Marketplace.
Is it any wonder Travel + Leisure recently dubbed Baltimore the “coolest city on the East Coast”?
So why does all this change make the $20 Diner nervous? Because Baltimore has historically been a tremendous city for cheap eats. Souvlaki in Greektown. Snowballs in Bel Air. Lasagna in Little Italy. Crab cakes at Lexington Market. The market forces that ran mom-and-pop restaurants out of business in Washington might also do the same thing in Charm City, right?
Not to worry, says Loudermilk, a Baltimore native. Cheap eats will always fit “our persona as being quirky,” the critic says. “We like to find the deals. I mean, we’re thrilled that we have more chef-driven, local restaurants and more presence on the national food scene, but we still love our smaller places.”
Charm City, in short, not only has an appetite for cheap eats, but also a budget for them. Fortunately, there are still tons of places to take care of the locals. I wanted to highlight a few, some old and some new. I also wanted to find one killer Baltimore crab cake that wouldn’t break the bank.
This microscopic storefront in Fells Point doesn’t bill itself as a taqueria, even though tacos are its primary attraction. No, Sinaloa is a “tortilleria,” which tells you plenty about what the place values: fresh, house-made tortillas, prepared right behind the counter in a stainless-steel machine that presses out hundreds of the masa rounds an hour. Each taco comes swaddled in two of those tortillas, which are so soft and toothsome, they act more like polenta cakes — very, very thin polenta cakes. The tacos, particularly the lengua and the barbacoa, are mandatory. But don’t overlook the huevos and chorizo plate, which comes with its own basket of tortillas, perfect for building your own bite. Seating is limited to about eight stools. 1716 Eastern Ave., 410-276-3741.
Long delayed by construction woes, Paulie Gee’s finally debuted last summer in the former Hampden Republican Club building. Owner Kelly Beckham is a financial-planner-turned-pizzaiolo, and he proved himself obsessive enough to merit a franchise of the small, boutique Paulie Gee’s chain. His pies are not as soupy as the Neapolitan rounds that inspired them, but the dough is well-developed and baked in a wood-burning oven that leaves its dark fingerprints all over the rounds. Oddly, there’s not a margherita pizza in sight. Instead, the menu offers a tidy selection of pies, many sporting tongue-in-cheek names such as the Brian DeParma (a simple preparation with freshly shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano) and the Ricotta Be Kiddin’ Me (fresh ricotta is dolloped atop the Canadian bacon and sweet fennel sausage after its trip in the oven). Groan-worthy, yes. But delicious, too. 3535 Chestnut Ave., 410-889-1048.
An offshoot of the Helmand, the respected restaurant owned by the elder brother of former Afghan president Hamid Karzai, Helmand Kabobi is fast and it is casual — just not the way you’d assume. Helmand Kabobi is not a customizable experience. Rather, it features many dishes familiar to Helmand diners, but in takeout and office-friendly preparations, such as a wrap or bowl. In any form, the kabuli pallow is Afghan cooking at its most sublime, a sweet-and-savory combination of fork-tender lamb, raisins and glazed carrots on a bed of rice, each grain glistening like grass on a dewy morning. Service can be indifferent in the full-service dining room on the lower level, but once the food arrives, all is forgiven. Whatever you do, don’t skip the kaddo borani, an appetizer of baby pumpkin drizzled with garlic-yogurt sauce, or the spicy kofta meatballs, whether they’re tucked into a wrap or lounging on fluffy challow rice. The restaurant is open only until 8 p.m. on weekdays. 855 N. Wolfe St., 410-327-2230.
Greek immigrants have called Baltimore home since the late 1800s. By the 20th century, they settled in an area that eventually became known as Greektown, which still carries faint echoes of the Old World in, say, a cluttered and dusty deli. But mostly the neighborhood trades on that Mediterranean reverie of sapphire waters and white stone villas, the images permanently burned into the imaginations of countless Americans. Samos is the kind of Greek restaurant we frequented in the days before Johnny Monis at Komi and José Andrés at Zaytinya opened our eyes to new flavors. As such, Samos has an insider’s track to our hearts. I was reminded of this as I snacked on gyro meat sliced from a prefab cone; wolfed down bright, moist hunks of chicken souvlaki; and dug into a Greek salad drizzled with a pungent dressing spiked with anchovies. This is a taste of home — one that I never knew but whose cooking I have enjoyed most of my life. 600 Oldham St., 410-675-5292.
No cheap-eats tour of Baltimore is complete without a stop at Chaps, home to arguably the finest pit beef sandwich, the other dish that is wholly identified with Charm City. The pit beef here is closer to grilled meat than slow-smoked barbecue; the bottom round is cooked directly over charcoal and sliced thin to your desired temperature. When piled high on a soft bun with grated horseradish and raw onions, the medium-rare beef comes across as blue-collar prime rib — with all the intense flavors but without the white-tablecloth fussiness. The house-made pork barbecue sandwich deserves almost as much attention as the pit beef. The lightly smoked pork nuzzles up to a tangy, somewhat spicy sauce, delivering a ham-handed bite with surprising nuance. This kind of deliciousness attracts a wide spectrum of diners, including dead-eyed patrons of the adjacent strip club and the drool-on-command hosts of almost every travel show on TV. You’d better get in line now before it stretches out the door. Baltimore location: 5801 Pulaski Hwy., 410-483-2379.
Perhaps Baltimore’s Little Italy isn’t the destination it was in the 20th century. Its homestyle charms, you could argue, have been overshadowed by the chef-driven fare found at such places as Cinghiale or Cosima. But when you want Italian-style pastries, cookies and desserts, you can’t do much better than Vaccaro’s, a slice of old-school Italy. Macaroons, biscotti, strudel cookies, wedding cookies, ricotta cookies, mini cream puffs, mini cannoli, eclairs and the mother of them all, the sfogliatella, a crispy pastry that’s rolled and packed with a citron-flavored ricotta filling. It’s dessert. It’s a work of art. If you can leave here without a box of sweets, you’re a stronger person than I. Little Italy location: 222 Albemarle St., 410-685-4905.
This Upper Fells Point restaurant was knocked offline after a 2015 fire, which also damaged chef and owner Sean Guy’s upstairs apartment. The worst part: Guy’s 3-year-old pug, Dirty Rice, died in the blaze. But Guy did not surrender. With the help of neighbors, friends and strangers, he reopened Water for Chocolate — named for Laura Esquivel’s novel — within a matter of months, and Baltimore is better off with this neighborhood eatery and its concise menu of salads, sandwiches and entrees. Guy’s Italian-sausage meatloaf has become a signature item, and it’s easy to see why: The slices of saucy, fennel-laced meatloaf are so lush, they collapse at the slightest pressure, which is a problem if you order them in a sandwich. But it’s a problem with an easy solution: Pick up a fork and shovel until finished. It won’t take long. The big surprise here is the pulled-pork quesadilla: The well-engineered wedges sport a thin layer of Jack and cheddar cheeses, which allows the smoky, mouthwatering pork to assume its rightful place as star. 1841 E. Lombard St., 443-961-2751.
Occupying a sunny corner location inside Mt. Vernon Marketplace, Local Oyster has deals that will brighten your day regardless of the weather. Like its Buck-A-Shuck happy hour from 4 to 7 p.m. weekdays, when local oysters are a mere $1 each, including the powerfully briny Misty Points from Virginia’s Eastern Shore. Those bivalves go down easy with a $3 pint of PBR. But the real steal is Local Oyster’s crab cake, prepared with pure Maryland blue-crab meat. The 5.5-ounce ball of sweet meat runs $15, which sounds like a price guaranteed to bankrupt a business, given that the wholesale cost for Maryland jumbo lump, according to one individual, runs about $1.80 an ounce. More likely, Local Oyster relies on Maryland lump, a somewhat cheaper product that still delivers the clean, sweet flavors you expect without impoverishing the company. Whatever grade graces Local Oyster’s crab cake, you need to get one, like, right now. 520 Park Ave., inside Mt. Vernon Marketplace, 844-748-2537.
When I’m not wearing my $20 Diner cap, I’m torn between which Spike Gjerde restaurant I like best: Woodberry Kitchen, the chef’s ode to the Mid-Atlantic, or Parts and Labor, his concept dedicated to whole-animal butchery and open-hearth cooking. But when I need to watch my budget — like, always — I reflexively turn to Gjerde’s Artifact, a rustic cafe carved out of a 19th-century stone mill that once was the largest producer of duck cloth in the world. The menu is microscopic, but well-conceived. Your meal could be as simple as an English muffin (baked nearby at Woodberry Kitchen) with egg and cheddar — and sprinkled with Gjerde’s own Snake Oil, a potent hot sauce built from Chesapeake fish peppers. Or it could be something heartier, like the vegetable banh mi with marinated tofu, mushroom pâté, pickled carrots and more. I often visit the shop just for its pour-over coffee (featuring beans from Counter Culture) and a house-made pastry or cookie. 1500 Union Ave., Suite 114, 410-235-1881.
One of the owners — the one with the Israeli background — apparently likes to say that Canèla’s hummus is better than the one at Zahav in Philadelphia, where pilgrims congregate daily just to sample chef Michael Solomonov’s rich, creamy dip. Canèla’s boast may be as much salesmanship as truth, but still. I had to try this hummus. Alas, I arrived too late. It was sold out for the day, which tells you something about Baltimoreans’ love for the spread. Fortunately, Canèla’s line of sandwiches is worth a trip alone. The Za’atar is a bewitching bite — eggplant, red peppers, red onions, cucumbers, sliced hard-boiled egg, goat cheese and a dusting of za’atar spice blend — layered onto toasted slices of ciabatta. It gives veg fare a good name. The Catalan Kebab on a toasted baguette slathered with tahini may be even more inventive: It’s a meatball hoagie by way of the Middle East, and every bit as delicious as it sounds. The place also has fresh-squeezed juices, espresso drinks, custom smoothies and alcohol, all of which add to Canèla’s allure. But, still, I need to get my hands on that hummus. 1801 E. Lombard St., 443-708-2562.