Completely bummed that you're leaving us, azlobo, but Baltimore, I can help with. We were there from 2007 to 2009, and I really miss that town.
Baltimore is crabs, right? Good crab shacks abound (as do bad ones), but the one that I settled into as a personal favorite was Mr. Bill's Terrace Inn. It's in Essex, about 15-20 east of the inner harbor, and it's a tattered, beloved barcalounger of a restaurant. It's been around forever, it was a bar long before it was a crab shack, the walls are covered with Baltimore Colts photos and press clippings, the staff has been there forever, and it's always packed with a mostly local crowd since they're a bit of a skip from the tourist areas. They always seem to have fabulous, heavy crabs (almost exclusively from the gulf -- local crabs are hard to come by and, given the sad state of the Chesapeake, not necessarily better these days), and they use an in-house spice mix that's similar to Old Bay, but a little mellower and, in my opinion, a whole lot tastier. You just order a ton of crabs, a bunch of Natty Boh and go to town. P.S.... eating the steamed crab au natural is the preferred method. Dipping in a touch of vinegar is a common variant. Melted butter is offered, but will probably get you some looks. Personal opinion? You don't need to add a damn thing.
Also, there are crabcakes, of course. Ask a dozen Baltimorons who makes the best crabcakes, you'll get a dozen different answers. Even after two years, I don't feel comfortable dipping my toes into that debate. But an extremely good place to stop for them is Faidley's. It's a local institution, located in Lexington Market, which is one of the city's six (seven?) public markets. The market itself doesn't provide anything amazing in terms of foodstuffs (though the seafood will obviously be a whole lot better than you're used to seeing), but it's as much a cultural experience as a culinary one. Faidley's is a counter service joint with a few high counters and no chairs, so it's a good quick stop.
The crabcake is how you find most of them in Baltimore. Almost all crab, very little binder/filler. In this case, just enough cracker and mayonnaise to hold them together, a touch of mustard and seasoning, and that's it. They're a little larger than a baseball and deep fried, and really, really good. There are better to be had, but not in better surroundings.
Of course, the crabcakes get the attention at Faidley's, but one of my favorite things there is the fried haddock sandwich. It's awesome. A huge plank of burn-your-mouth fried fish, hot and crisp on the outside and tender and moist in the center. Hot, fresh fried fish served between two cold slices of white bread. The temperature contrast, in this case, is a good thing. I always get a side of cole slaw, add some to the sandwich and give it a liberal splash of hot sauce. Another thing to try here is the coddie, which is another local specialty, albeit one that's kind of fallen out of favor. They're cakes made with flaked cod and mashed potatoes, breaded and fried. I understand that in times long past, these were more cod than potato. The reverse is now the case (I'd love to see somebody resurrect the historical coddie that everybody talks about). But they're still really delicious, and not something you're likely to find anywhere else. There's also a really good raw bar at Faidley's, and depending on your comfort level when it comes to raw oysters, it can be a real treat.
Given your inexplicable Arby's fetish, you need to have some pit beef. I've joked that Arby's is the bastardized, mass marketed version of this sandwich. It's another Baltimore thing... a tough chunk of beef (usually top or bottom round, I think) quickly grilled so that it's charred on the outside and still rare (preferably mooing) in the center, though the good places will let you choose your temperature (and you might even get it). Then it's sliced thin and served on a kaiser roll, and you add your preferred toppings -- onions, pickles, tiger sauce (creamy horseradish) and BBQ sauce are some of the most common.
The most famous pit beef place is Chaps Pit Beef, and it's worthy. Probably best for a first try if you're passing through. I also had great sandwiches from Pioneer and a little truck called Bull On The Run, if you can find it. I wrote about BotR's location here
, but that was years ago and I have no idea if that's still where they park.
Given the dearth of good deli in Phoenix, Attman's is another place you should really check out. It's one of two (three?) surviving members of Baltimore's Corned Beef Row (an old Jewish neighborhood that's all but disappeared), and it's easily the best remaining. It's a real hole in the wall, and if you go at lunchtime there's a huge line that they cram into the narrow space. Again, a true cultural institution, and the kind of place you'd never find here.
It's all about the brisket here, in whatever form -- corned beef, pastrami, roasted -- held in the steam box and sliced to order. This is what I pine for when I keep trying corned beef and pastrami around town. This pastrami is so freaking good -- heavily spiced, garlicky, just the right amount of fat, warm and tender... drool. It's a huge list of sandwiches. Pick your preferred combination/permutation (either straight-up corned beef / pastrami or the Nosh or the Gay Liveration -- no typo -- are my personal faves), and go to town. The chopped liver is awesome, too.
Very near Attman's (and the Inner Harbor) is Baltimore's Little Italy, a beloved neighborhood and deservedly so. It's a wonderful place with wonderful people and oodles of character. Unfortunately, the food mostly sucks. Badly. Don't eat there. Unless you go to Piedigrotta. It's an Italian bakery a couple blocks off the main drag, and it's spectacular. The 800 lb. gorilla in that 'hood is Vaccaro's, and everybody will tell you to go there, and they are all WRONG
. Vaccaro's is mediocre when it's at its best, and it kills
me to see that place packed every night while Piedigrotta, just a couple of blocks away, is deserted. Anyway, PIedigrotta is run by a husband and wife from the Veneto, and they're just awesome, both as people and bakers. The husband, Carminantonio, has a highly credible claim as the inventor of tiramisu. Its first appearance has been pretty reliably traced to a restaurant outside of Venice, and it's been established that his pastry shop was supplying them with desserts when tiramisu first appeared on the scene. That the probable inventor of such an iconic dessert works mostly in obscurity on the edge of Baltimore's Little Italy is bordering on infuriating. But anyway, just go. Fabulous Italian pastries and cookies. And his wife, Bruna, makes some great savories as well -- stuffed pastas, meat pies, etc. It's usually reheated fare, but even nuked, it's better than most of what you'll get in the neighborhood's restaurants. If you go, you must tell Bruna that Dominic, Jennifer, Matteo and Giulia miss them dearly.
Take the total length of this post, quadruple it, and that's how much I could write about Grace Garden without breaking a sweat. It's in Odenton, about 20 minutes south of the city, and it's the greatest food nerd discovery that I've had the pleasure of being at the center of. It's a tiny, tiny joint in a dingy, ramshackle strip mall across from Fort Meade. They were hanging on by selling Sweet Sour Pork and General Tso's Chicken to the soldiers across the street, but it turns out the couple that runs the place, Chun and Mei, are from Hong Kong, and they're AMAZING cooks. They have a second menu that's filled with hordes of amazing traditional Cantonese and Sichuan specialties (Chun spent a lot of time studying in Sichuan province), as well as some slightly contemporary takes thereon. It's arguably the best Chinese food I've had this side of the Pacific.
You really need a crowd here, partly so that you can try a lot of stuff, and partly because some of the best dishes are special order and huge. If you want to go, drop me a line and I'll put you in touch with the local food nerds. Getting a crowd together for Grace Garden is not a difficult task (they're usually looking for a good excuse). But if you MUST go as a couple, some favorites include the fish noodles (the noodles are made of fish), the crispy Sichuan fish with rice powder, the Sichuan fish fillets, the Triple T (our pet name for the Sichuan beef tongue, tripe and tendon), the braised pork belly with mui choy, the Taiwanese style fish, the Hong Kong style curry beef stew... please just get in touch with the local nerds and go with a big group.
A couple others that are lower priority, but good stops nonetheless:
Woodberry Kitchen is a midrange restaurant that's gotten a lot of press. They were ahead of the curve on farm to table. It's all really simple, hyperseasonal food. Very homey, very simple, very, very delicious. And the best mint julep I've ever had by a wide margin.
Baltimore has a really nice Greektown as well, and my favorite there was Zorba's. I remember everything being delicious, but the big standout was the grilled octopus, which was outstanding... blackened on the outside, but still sweet and tender, doused with olive oil, garlic and lemon. Killer stuff.
If there's anything specific you're looking for, I can probably give you more info as well. But those are what I consider the most important stops.
Whenever you get there, PLEASE, PLEASE
report back. I'm dying to hear what you think.Mr. Bill's Terrace Inn
200 Eastern Blvd.
Essex, MD 21221
200 N. Paca St.
Baltimore, MD 21201
410-727-4898Chaps Pit Beefwww.chapspitbeef.com
5801 Pulaski Hwy
Baltimore, MD 21205
1019 E. Lombard St.
Baltimore, MD 21202
410-563-2666Piedigrotta Italian Bakerywww.piedigrottabakery.com
1300 Bank St.
Baltimore, MD 21202
1690 Annapolis Rd.
Odenton, MD 21113
2010 Clipper Park Rd.
Baltimore, MD 21211
410-464-8000Zorba's Bar & Grill
4710 Eastern Ave.
Baltimore, MD 21224