Most of my favorite food doesn't reduce to my "Top 10" list of restaurants in Howard County -- even after I supplemented with a second list of great items at little places.
So I'm taking Elizabeth Large's inspiration for a list of "great experiences" to create a second list of ways that you can enjoy great food in Howard County. Please add comments with your favorite Howard County food experiences -- places to shop, places to eat, etc.
- Eat a peach right off the tree at Larriland Farm in Woodbine. From berries in early summer through apples and pumpkins in fall, nothing beats the flavor of the first peach that we split driving away from the farm stand.
- Reserve a private room at Sushi King in Columbia. The private rooms are really walled-in tables for four to six. Romantic or impressive, but also surprisingly useful to keeping a toddler confined during a meal.
- Grill your own meats at Shin Chon Garden in Ellicott City. Korean restaurants serve some of Howard County's best food, and the post-renovation Shin Chon is pretty, welcoming to beginners or immigrants, and fully-outfitted with grilling tables. Go with a group so you can try several meats.
- Keep thick-cut pepper bacon in your fridge from Laurel Meat Market, JW Trueth in Oella or Beiler's Meats in the Dutch Country Farmers Market in Laurel. Four-to-six slices are perfect when I am canvassing the refrigerator to make a meal -- BLTs, pasta sauces, or just bacon-and-eggs.
- Buy hot baguettes at Bon Fresco in Columbia or Bonaparte Breads in Savage. I have knocked on the door at Bon Fresco 30-45 minutes before they open, and they're so nice that they'll sell you baguettes and other bread right out the door. Two baguettes for that night's dinner party, plus one more than I started eating warm in the car.
- Buy a hot pretzel, then walk around the Dutch Country Farmers Market in Laurel. Start with a hot pretzel, then circle the relocated market to check out Amish salads, butchers, candies, baked goods, etc.
- Grilled kabobs, naan and Italian ice on a summer night at Maiwand Kabob and Rita's in Columbia. Harper's Choice Village Center is the spot for a perfect casual dinner.
- Pho on a winter night at An Loi or Pho Daht Trahn in Columbia. People complain that both of Columbia's Vietnamese restaurants have gone downhill, but the noodle soup makes for a warm, full night (and is great takeout) -- even though it's traditionally a breakfast in Hanoi.
- Coffee and breakfast at Sarah & Desmond's Bakery and Cafe in Ellicott City. Bring the paper. Enjoy the food. Squint hard enough, and the traffic driving past the plate glass window could almost convince you that you're in a city.
- Buy your vegetables right off the farm at the Gorman Produce Farm in Laurel. The Likers run a CSA and a seasonal farm stand on Gorman Road just east of Rte 29. Expect nature. People have correctly pointed out that every selection isn't mind-blowing, but the Likers improved throughout the 2009 opening year -- and it's still a treat to buy produce that was harvested a few hundred feet away.
- Pick up a few dozen crabs at Frank's Seafood Market in Jessup. It's free to visit Frank's at the wholesale seafood market. You just show ID to get through the gate.
- Stop for tacos and a horchata at Lily's Mexican Market in Columbia. You should visit Lily's just for the homemade corn tortillas. But you can treat yourself to a few of the tacos and the horchata drink in the machine across from the takeout counter.
- Stop for empanadas at El Patio Market in Jessup. The Argentine restaurant closed next door, but the small market on U.S. 1 still sells empanadas that you can order hot for a "mid-errands" snack or cold to carry home and re-heat for dinner.
- Walk around Main Street in Ellicott City. The weekend parking and dusty antiques have discouraged us, but you can spend a great afternoon poking around -- even if none of the shopping interests you. Snack at the French Market or Sweet Cascades. Grab at beer at the Judge's Bench, or take one home from the Wine Bin. Sample yourself a "progressive dinner" by trying appetizers along the way.
- Saute the big scallops from the Today's Catch market in Columbia. My friend Cheryl has me freaked out with the facts about fish and big business -- the chemicals, the packaging, the by-catch destruction. Today's Catch sells scallops that aren't pumped full of phosphates. You don't need anything more than butter.
- Sample beer and a burger at Victoria Gastropub in Columbia. Five half-pours and the best burger in Howard County. Even better if you can enjoy the "parking lot cafe" and eat watching your car.
- Picnic and paddleboats at Centennial Lake in Columbia. Enjoy a meal on the grass, then work it off pedaling (or kayaking) around the lake on Rte 108. Big enough to entertain any kid. Small enough that you can survive even if you're solely responsible for locomotion.
- Take your meat-eating father-in-law to Mirchi Wok in Columbia. This is the vegetarian's trick. Sit in Mirchi Wok, and the meat-lovers in your life can order Indian or Chinese-Indian fusions. But you can order off the menu from vegetarian Mango Grove next door. No fuss, no conflict. (Eventually, they'll be enlightened enough to respect the food at Great Sage in Clarksville.)
- Ask for advice at the fish counter at the H Mart in Catonsville. Not from the fishmongers. I am slowly learning to cook whole fish by asking other customers "What are you going to do with that?" So far, everyone has been tickled to talk fish, although they have offered far more general plans ("then you cut it up for soup") than step-by-step recipes.
- Go for a late-night margarita at Azul 17 in Columbia. You're in the suburbs. You're not dead. The new Mexican restaurant feels like a city restaurant, and you can splurge on a designer tequila -- whether your idea of late-night is 9 pm or 1 am.
If you're looking for good food in Howard County, check out two prior series of posts -- a "tour of Howard County" describing restaurants and markets in specific areas or my guide to what I've learned about Howard County from "best Chinese" to "best takeout" to "best burgers." Or check out a listing of ethnic and organic groceries.