Most shopping centers -- especially in Columbia -- hide from main roads. Big landlords like the mall want safe, chain tenants, and downtown Ellicott City is the only place with dense, small-building development where someone could risk renting to a start-up restaurant and where you could stumble from a place you know to a gem you don't.
U.S. 1 from Rte 100 down to Rte 32 offers an interesting frontier for people who want to try new food. Rents must be cheaper. Ethnic and casual spots have congregated. Go for a single meal, or meander away an afternoon snacking and shopping through Elkridge and Jessup.
- Start at Caezar's International Market and Restaurant. Columbia's best Middle Eastern market moved to a new shop off Rte 103 just east of U.S. 1. This is minutes from Rte 100, and the market formerly known as Sizar's brings its spectacular array of breads, teas, spices, yogurts, frozen food, and more. I'll drive just for the pistachio nougat. They're offering a butcher, and they opened a restaurant next door.
- A few blocks south, turn west on Roosevelt Boulevard for barbeque at Smokeys & Uncle Grube's. It's a block off U.S. 1. I go for the pit beef, which tastes extra delicious on a nice day when I can eat in the tent outside.
- One block south at the light for Business Parkway, turn west again for Mexican at El Nayar. This barebones Mexican place offers breakfasts with eggs, tortillas, and beans and then lunches and dinners heavy on tacos, sopes and burritos. They're good, and less than $2 each for a taco.
- If you're itching to shop, try the Sysco Discount Food Center on the west side next to the U.S. 1 flea market. Sysco sells large-sized products like Costco -- everything from five pounds of chicken nuggets to 10-pound bags of pasta. I also suggest it for party supplies (disposable plates, table clothes, catering trays, etc.) and for kitchen supplies, including knives, huge bowls, stock pots, and other commercial items that I haven't seen elsewhere.
- For my favorite stop on U.S. 1, you actually stand right on the highway. The Pupuseria Lorenita's taco truck parks almost every day -- although I'm not sure of the exact address because its former host (Paco's Paint) closed in early 2009. Great tacos. I love the grilled beef and the sausage. You get two tortillas with each, and I split the fillings to extend the meal in my car. (Update: A comment on Feb. 18, 2009 says that the truck moved south and to the west side of U.S.1.)
- After you have had some snacks, head down to the Columbia East shopping center at Rte 175 and U.S. 1 in Jessup. There is both a Starbucks and a Rita's (in warm weather). But the real stars are My Organic Market for vegetables, some cheeses, and packaged organic products and Fortune Star Buffet for an endless Chinese food. Fortune Star gets mixed reviews, but I thought it was a fine place to explore. (In April 2009, there was talk about a Peruvian chicken place opening in Columbia East. Click here for posts about Pollo Fuego.)
- Keep shopping at Frank's Seafood Market, which is just east of "Columbia East" in the wholesale fish market. I have heard that the prices aren't anything special, but there is something nice about picking from whole fish and fillets in a place inside the wholesale market. Frank's clearly sells enough to offer fresh product, and it's a fun place to invent a menu based on what has arrived or been put on special. This is my summertime place to pick up a few dozen crabs.
- Finish off your trip with some takeout empanadas -- even a full Argentine meal at El Patio Market and its neighboring restaurant on the west side of U.S. 1 just south of Rte 175. The empanadas are perfect at the restaurant, heated up as finger food at the store, or carried home to reheat at home. The market also stocks a small, but diverse supply of standard Hispanic groceries as well. The spicy Super Mango lollipop or the peanut brittle (available at the market next to the checkout) make fun treats for your way home.
This isn't an exhaustive tour, and you could make several nice side trips -- a little west on Rte 175 to Fatburger, the Perfect Pour liquor shop and Trader Joe's or a little south on U.S. 1 to the Pupuceria Y Taqueria Los Pinos taco truck in Laurel. Once you're that far into Laurel, you might as well go all the way for Indian groceries at Apna Bazar or the smaller Middle Eastern grocery at Aladdin Food Mart.
(Update: Check out the comment below about the Sysco store and the nut outlet. They both sound terrific. Definitely places that I want to check out, although I have heard people say that the prices at the nut outlet aren't always a bargain. Thanks to HowICook for the comments.)
This is part of the "What I Learned" series of posts. They're organized in rings. See below to continue on the ring of ideas about food in Howard County. Or click to switch to the posts about different cuisines or posts about shopping.
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