The second in a series. Previously: Van Dorn Station
When I first proposed a cheap-eats neighborhood guide, I didn’t imagine it would include, well, you know, cities. I was aiming for more targeted locations, like shopping centers, blocks or food-truck squares, not full-blown cities, which swell with countless commercial corridors. Search a city long enough, and you’ll find plenty of good budget eats. It’s shooting fish in a deep fryer.
But I also didn’t expect the entire city of Laurel to bombard my inbox with suggestions. Perhaps I exaggerate. Numerous readers, no doubt urged by a Laurel listserv, recommended more than a dozen restaurants in the former mill town in northern Prince George’s County, famous for its dinosaur fossils, horse racing and unfortunate distinction as the site where Alabama Gov. George Wallace was shot and wounded in 1972 while campaigning for president.
In terms of dining, Laurel is perhaps best known for Pasta Plus (209 Gorman Ave., 301-498-5100), the home-style Italian restaurant established in 1983 by two brothers from Abruzzo. The strip-center pasta house is a place without time, where diners still talk about the ponies and racing forms while digging into plates of fettuccine Alfredo or spaghetti with meatballs. The pizzas, hot and puffy, are pulled straight from a wood-burning brick oven. Several of the pastas are rolled and cut in-house. This is first-wave-immigrant cooking, done with care and craft, and I adore its red-sauce soul.
Helen Woods owns and manages a flight school, and as such, she has a soft spot for small businesses. To hear her talk, Helen has dined at seemingly every mom-and-pop joint in Laurel. She originally e-mailed to suggest eight restaurants, and I asked if she would meet me at one of them, Curry Leaf (13919 Baltimore Ave., 301-497-2017), a calming, minimalist dining room dedicated to Indian cooking.
Helen warned me that the naan can be “tough” at Curry Leaf. She prefers the flatbread at Sapphire Restaurant and Lounge (13308 Laurel Bowie Rd., 301-490-0555), a hybrid Indian-Thai spot where the naan is “the best I have had,” she said.
As tempting as Sapphire’s naan may be, I was attracted to Curry Leaf for two reasons: Its chefs, brothers Saravan “Sam” Krishnan and Venkatesan “John” Krishnan, used to prepare the fiery, veg-friendly fare at Udupi Palace, the venerated South Indian restaurant that closed years ago in Langley Park (although its dishes were absorbed by its sister restaurant, Tiffin). The brothers’ menu in Laurel features some old favorites: rice cakes (idli), lentil doughnuts (medu vada) and an oversize brown-rice-and-lentil crepe (dosa) stuffed with an innocuous-looking potato mixture that could make you hallucinate, it was so hot. I often suffered from a South Indian form of Stockholm syndrome at Udupi: I embraced my torturers.
But when Helen and I sat down for dinner, I was immediately distracted, and somewhat confused, by the Sri Lankan dishes at Curry Leaf. It was later explained that the Krishnan siblings hail from Madurai, India, which is “just across the peninsula” from Sri Lanka. “The cuisines are somewhat similar,” manager Peter Gomes says.
I could not resist the call of the new. I ordered largely outside the kitchen’s South Indian comfort zone: Helen and I shared a Sri Lankan egg curry with Ceylon paratha; a chili paneer entree from the Indo-Chinese menu; a chicken Chettinad entree; a Hyderabadi appetizer of fried peppers; and another app known as chicken 65. The openers were standard issue, although one or two of the fried long hot peppers could pack a powerful punch, enough to cut through the thick chickpea coating.
The kitchen prepared the wrong Chettinad dish, substituting stringy chunks of lamb for our requested chicken, a mistake that motivated Helen to break out her “obnoxious female flight instructor hand signal.” She scissored her arms over her head, as if signaling an airbus to cut its engines at Reagan National. It did the trick: Our server brought us a fresh dish of chicken Chettinad, a South Indian speciality of such heat and complexity that I could barely parse all its spices, herbs and peppers.
Helen put a hurt on the chili paneer, a dish with a distinct sweetness despite its name.
The star of our dinner table, at least to my mind, was the egg curry with Ceylon paratha. The flatbread, a coiled and crispy round, was the Sri Lankan equivalent of laminated dough; each buttery length of paratha served not just as an eating utensil but also as a complement and counterpoint to the cardamom-and-coconut-milk curry. The bread-and-sauce combination proved so addictive I ignored the two hard-cooked eggs, a pair of nerds at the prom. I was so smitten with the Sri Lankan dish, in fact, that I forgot to order naan.
I didn’t find another dish in Laurel as beguiling as the egg curry, but I found something just as important: consistently solid fare, not exceptional but quotidian cooking that leads me to believe locals eat well in their own restaurants.
I was put off by the dirty, salsa-encrusted menu at Tampico Grill (42 Washington Blvd., 301-490-5200), a Tex-Mex fossil of meals past. But Tampico’s “super combo” lived up to its name with a trio of offerings, including a beef flauta with a delicately fried shell, more 7-Eleven taquito than tortilla nightstick.
Sarita’s Chicken and Restaurant (15101 Baltimore Ave., 240-264-6313) bills itself as a Peruvian outlet, but its menu reads more like pan-Latin fare cloaked in an alpaca pelt. Regardless, the chifa-style arroz chaufa de pollo was almost risotto-like, a generous plate of short-grain rice swollen with a deeply savory stock and studded with chicken. Olive on Main (504 Main St., 240-280-8560) serves up Greek and American dishes similar to the ones at sister establishments Middle Eastern Cuisine and Olive Lounge in Takoma Park. The chicken shawarma may not be rotisserie-grilled, but its tender pieces of breast meat come perfumed with sweet, aromatic spices.
More Than Java Cafe (358 Main St., 301-490-3200) is a friendly coffeehouse and sandwich shop serving a homemade pound cake, moist and lemony, that’s a perfect cap to a day of dining. If the coffee program hasn’t yet caught the third wave, well, it just means there’s still room to grow in Laurel.
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