Friday, February 27, 2009

Take Five Minutes; Help Your Favorite Restaurant

Spend five minutes and help your favorite local restaurant.

Jessie X runs a Web site called HocoLoco Girl, which is basically a list of Howard County restaurants with space for people to comment on them.  Jessie is a big fan of local businesses.  She has an eloquent explanation based on her view of Second Chance Saloon, and she just started a plan asking people to help her describe local restaurants.  Just think of your favorite restaurant.  Check it out on HocoLoco Girl.  If it isn't listed, email Jessie so she can add it.  If it is listed, write a nice comment and tell people why you go there.

I swear this works.  People find HocoLoco through search engines, and I know that people discovered HowChow through the links that I put there.  People will visit restaurants if they hear good things, and you can help your favorite place by describing a few details -- a favorite dish, a great night you had there -- and enticing folks to try.

Five minutes.  Be as creative as you want, or just find your favorite place and write, "I really enjoy this place for REASON.  My favorite dishes are DISHES.  If you like DISH, then you'll love this place."  Have fun.  Help the locals.  (And if you have five minutes more, go add a comment about your favorite place here on HowChow!)

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Kloby's Smokehouse Is Open in Laurel

The Kloby's Smokehouse at Johns Hopkins Road and Rte 29 is open and happy to sell you barbeque.

I only mention this because the original Kloby's in Windsor Mill has closed. I called the Laurel outpost, and they confirmed that the original closed and that the business has shifted down to the Howard County location. Kloby's has great BBQ. It's a casual place. Easy access from Rte 29. Great for takeout.

For more about barbeque in Howard County, check out the "What I Learned" post about kabobs and BBQ. Tip of the menu to Urbanspoon where I learned about Kloby's closing.

Butchers and Meat Markets in Howard County

Choice is the key to a great butcher or meat market. You can buy steaks at any supermarket, so you should only drive to a butcher if you can choose some cut, some quality, some flavor outside the everyday.

There are four Howard County -- or close -- meat markets that come to mind. They're all old-fashioned places, selling simplicity rather than the Whole Foods style of organics and name brands.

For me, they're each worth the trip just for thick-cut bacon and home-made sausage. Those are my weak points, and they're great to buy in a special place. Better six slices of thick-cut, pepper-edged bacon than an entire pound of plastic-wrapped fat. Better meaty sausage at the base of a stew than all the Egg McMuffins that I ate in high school.

I've eaten some great steak from these joints. I particularly remember a filet from JW Treuth that seemed perfect -- tender, but real beef flavor. But I'm no expert at meat, and the truth is that I pay attention when I make a special trip for beef. I buy something nice. I find a good recipe. A few hours of anticipation make almost everything taste more delicious.

So I never know if I'm getting anything super-different than what I could get at Giant or the Bloom. If anything, I'd love a little education from one of these butchers. Sometimes, I ask questions, but I've never gotten an answer much more than, "The filet is good" or "A porterhouse would be good on the grill."
  • Boarman's Meat Market in Highland. This country market at Rte 108 and Rte 216 serves up meats -- along with housemade sausages and even crab cakes. The sausage is a real draw, a nice Italian link for sandwiches or a breakfast sausage to make your own patties. Boarman's is due south of Roots in Clarksville, so it's a convenient place if you're on the road shopping for a special meal.
  • Columbia Halal Meat in Elkridge. For Muslims, this can be an essential spot on Rte 108 because they -- along with Ceazar International Market -- sell halal chicken, lamb and goat. But I think it's a general resource for anyone looking for lamb or goat -- especially for large cuts like the whole goats -- or for personal service from the butchers who will trim and cut your order however you want.
  • (Nazar Market in Columbia.  The newest halal butcher fits the same space as Columbia Halal and Ceazar, and they give really friendly, helpful service with similar cuts.  The ground lamb became a regular part of my shopping in 2010 when I learned to grill kabobs, and you can use it for meatballs, sauces, etc.  They grind the meat personally for each order, so you know that it's fresh.  They also sell tiny lamb chops, chicken hearts and other unusual cuts.) 
I'd love any suggestions about what you buy from these butchers. Special cuts? Special orders? Or is there something special at one of the supermarkets that you love?

This is part of the "What I Learned" series of posts. They're organized in rings. See below to continue on the ring about shopping in Howard County. Or click to switch to the posts about different cuisines or posts about areas and ideas.

PREVIOUS: Vegetable Shopping in Howard County
NEXT: Organic Shopping in Howard County

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Breadery in Ellicott City

Hot bread at 11:30 am every day of the week. What else do you need to know before you go try The Breadery in Ellicott City?

The Breadery is a small, independent bakery on Rte 40. As the name says, it is a bread place, although they sell coffee and some muffins and cinnamon buns as well.

This is healthy bread with real flavor that comes from flour that The Breadery grinds itself. They're baked right there in more than a dozen varieties, ranging from challah and white to cheddar-parmesan and orange-cranberry-pecan. Although The Breadery sells jams and spreads, it correctly touts its different varieties as so flavorful that you'll make sandwiches without condiments. You can pick up a schedule to know what is baked each day, and you can call ahead for special orders.

Last week, I picked up a half-dozen challah rolls. We warmed them in the oven, and they developed a nice crisp crust over a light, eggy interior. Great with a chicken dinner, eating on their own and sopping up sauce.

If you can't get up to Ellicott City, look for The Breadery's loaves at Roots, David's Natural Foods and some Whole Foods.  You can also find them in the bakery at the Dutch Country Farmers Market in Burtonsville.

If you are looking for other bakeries, check out labels to the right where they're all listed under "Bak - NAME." Start with the sweets at La Boulangerie at Rte 29 and Rte 40, the French bread and pastries at Bonaparte Bread in Savage, or the coffee shop vibe of Old Mill Bakery Cafe near downtown Ellicott City.

The Breadery  -- MOVED in 2011 to Catonsville
9251 Baltimore National Pike (Rte 40)
Ellicott City, MD 21042

NEAR: The Breadery is on the south side of Rte 40 just west of Rte 29. It is in a shopping center that has a Starbucks on the corner closest to Rte 40.

Breadery on Urbanspoon

Monday, February 23, 2009

Pioneer Pit Beef in Woodlawn

The beauty of a pit beef sandwich -- the smoke, the beef, the slight char, the horseradish -- comes through at Pioneer Pit Beef in Woodlawn.

This is a simple thing. The Pioneer is a shack on Rolling Road just north of Rte 40. Inside, there is just room to line up for a sandwich. Order beef, ham or turkey. Take the "tasting" slice to be sure that you're picking right from "rare, medium or well-done?" Ask for fries or cole slaw. Step outside.

But you step outside for an absolutely delicious sandwich. I go for medium meat with horseradish and maybe some onion. In the crowd, people lather up with mayo, BBQ sauce and "tiger sauce" (mayo and horseradish combined), but I can't condone the practice. I don't want to cover up the meat -- the beef flavor of a tough cut, grilled and then sliced so thin that you bite through like filet.

Pioneer is one of my absolute favorite foods. Simple. But done so perfectly that it makes me want to skip pit beef that is just okay. (Boogs?) Ironically, I stumbled on Pioneer long before I started HowChow. I literally drove past this stand on the side of the highway when I was following Google directions to the Salvation Army. When I tried to find it again, I failed -- until I realized that the City Paper's "best pit beef" sounded like the stand by the highway.

Pioneer Pit Beef is just north of the H Mart in Catonsville. You can stop for a sandwich, then shop for groceries. Pioneer has no phone. They only take cash, but the sandwich is a bargain at $5.50. I understand that they're open from lunchtime until early evening Monday through Saturday.

If you like pit beef, check out the local spot -- Uncle Grube's on Rte 1 in Elkridge. For the best in BBQ and kabobs, check out this post for carnivores in Howard County.

Pioneer Pit Beef
1602 N. Rolling Road
Woodlawn, MD 21244

NEAR: Take Rte 40 from Howard County towards Catonsville and Rte 29. Turn left at the light at Rolling Road. This is the intersection with H Mart on the right and a diner on the left. Follow Rolling Road through a residential neighborhood and look for a yellow building with a green roof. It says "Pit Beef" on the roof. Turn left at the light onto JohnnyCake Road and then right into the Pioneer shopping center.

Pioneer Pit Beef on Urbanspoon

Friday, February 20, 2009

Soft Stuff To Expand; Forest Diner Has Five Years

The Forest Diner will close -- in five years -- but Soft Stuff stays and expands.

The Howard County Times posted news that the owner of the Forest Diner has sold its land on Rte 40 in Ellicott City and has a five-year lease now to run the diner. No huge effect today, although, as a former newspaper reporter, I recognize a story idea with good photos, nostalgia, and people happy to talk about good news.

The sidebar quotes a local guy whose family owns the neighboring Forest Motel and bought the Forest Diner. The motel has closed, but they're keeping Soft Stuff open selling ice cream from its current stand for 2009. Soft Stuff is a great local place, one of my favorite spots on a summer night to sit with a soft serve cone and a bunch of other people. Starting in Spring 2010, Soft Stuff is planned as the first tenant in the new development on that site. It might move a little, but they're planning on picnic tables! A local spot continues!

(This post replaces an earlier post that I wrote when I saw the main story, but not the sidebar on the Web. Score one for Old Media because I wouldn't have made that mistake if I had actually read a newspaper. Thanks to the anonymous perso who posted the sidebar in the comments. And thanks to the folks who are keeping Soft Stuff alive.)

Mexican Restaurants in Howard County

You can get good Mexican food in Howard County. For great Mexican, you you need to fly to Houston or LA, but you can get everything from groceries to fast food to nice casual dinners around here.

Start with the groceries. Lily's Mexican Market off Dobbin Road in Columbia is a true local treasure -- the class of the Mexican markets and the equal of any ethnic market around. Down those aisles, you can buy the Latino packaged and canned goods, along with baked goods, cheeses, frozen meals like arepas or tamales, and a nice array of produce. (Lily's is the place for ripe avocados when your supermarket only offers hard ones, and it even has some unique items like cactus.) Then, in the back, there is a butcher with fajita meat, Mexican and Salvadoran chorizos and more. If you're cooking Mexican food (or just looking for a snack), Lily's is the place to go.

Then, move onto Mexican fast food. By "fast food," I mean tacos and similar fare served either takeout or in basic restaurants. Last fall, Lily's added a takeout counter with tacos and chickens. Until then, the best tacos were strung along U.S. 1 -- the El Nayar restaurant in Elkridge, then the Pupuseria Lorenita's truck near Rte 175, and Pupuceria Y Taqueria Los Pinos truck in Laurel. Tacos cost about $2 at each place -- a little more at the actual restaurants. Two is a great meal, splitting the beef or pork filling among the warm tortillas. Lily's is the top of the class (especially with the horchata), but they're all great spots to stop between errands. (Update: In early spring 2009, the Pupuseria Y Taqueria Las Delicias truck started offering delicious fajitas, ribs and side dishes on U.S. 1 as well.)

But then, some nights, you want to take someone out for a nice meal. I learned the hard way that a woman expecting date night will notice that El Nayar has the ambiance of a Chik-fil-a. Again, we have basic Mexican restaurants round here, mostly Tex-Mex with some authentic Mexican items and some inspired specials. But when you want table service and a good meal, these are some of the joints at the top of the food chain:
  • El Azteca in Clarksville. Classic suburbs -- anonymous storefront facing Rte 108, but pretty inside with tile, decorations, and a small bar. Good Tex-Mex. Some upscale entrees. This is a place with a strong local following, and I like all these places for tacos al carbon -- that charred steak that I'm not skilled at making at home.
  • La Palapa in Ellicott City / La Palapa Too in Laurel near Columbia. Tex-Mex with some special entrees like El Azteca. Mrs. HowChow enjoyed the chicken mole. I wish the beans and rice at all these places were a bit less bland. But I'm drawn for the ceviche appetizer served on the weekends. Tangy chunks of fish. Salty chips. Order a beer, and I'm happy. Order a beer at La Palapa Too's outdoor seating, and you enjoy the true HoCo Rivieria -- sun, food, and a view of your car. You can't get that at Charleston!
  • Mi Casa in Ellicott City. I actually haven't been here yet, but it gets rave reviews in emails and the comments. People talk up the burritos -- both crab and vegetable. They also say that the owners are really friendly.
Other people have talked up Frisco Grille's Southwestern food, which I think of as more California than Mexico. I have also heard about Pachanga on Rte 40 and Zapata's at the Harpers Farm village center in Columbia. In the right column, click the "Cuisine - Mexican" link to read about all the restaurants and shops.

In addition to all of those spots, true explorers may want to check out the food at the food at the U.S. 1 flea market. The market caters heavily to folks from Latin America, so the vendors offer up a variety of foods, including tacos and arepas like the fast food trucks. Plus, there are often people selling snow cones or fruit salads topped with salt and cayenne.

This is part of the "What I Learned" series of posts. They're organized in rings. See below to continue on the ring about different cuisines. Or click to switch to the posts about shopping in Howard County or posts about areas and ideas.

Asian Restaurants in Howard County
NEXT: Coffee Shops in Howard County

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Comments on Chinese Food & U.S. 1

Feedback is the fuel that keeps me posting here, so I appreciate all the comments that people leave.  On Monday, I quoted at length a comment about the Second Chance Saloon, but readers have left other snippets that everyone should read.  Click on the links for the original post and the full comments.

Last summer, there was a blogger explosion about Grace Garden's Chinese food in Odenton.  I thought it was spectacular, and there was confirmation -- and some specific recommendations -- from a local who has served for several years as a guardian for Chinese students at a local high school:
Grace Garden was a breath of fresh air. I suspect most Americans who think of themselves as sophisticated restaurant-goers would be put off by the physical surroundings and the lackadaisical service by our standards. I think your frame of mind has to be that you've been invited to dinner in a Chinese home where the cook is harried and doesn't have much support, but he sure can cook!

We had a big group for our dinner including four Chinese students so we tried at least ten dishes. The most notable for me was the Szechuan braised beef. I also especially liked the seasonal vegetable (that night, pea shoots), spicy eggplant and several of the tofu dishes. I wasn't blown away by the fish noodles but they were certainly good. For comparison, the Chinese students had previously identified Bob's Noodle 66 in Rockville as a favorite, but they said that GG was better.
Last week, I posted a translated copy of the Chinese menu at Hunan Legend.  A reader Wai translated the menu after I posted about my disappointment eating there.  I knew it had a huge following, and I knew people must know the best things to order.  In the comments beneath Wai's menu, an anonymous poster talks about Hunan Legend and shares his/her recommendations.  Now, I need to go back!
We're regulars at Hunan Legend and after chatting with the owners (who impressively knew us by name on our third visit and how they remember what we ate previously, we still can't figure out), and the reason these authentic dishes were off-the-menu was primarily because many times, food got sent back because some customers weren't aware of what they were actually ordering and wanted the americanized version. 
But if you're into authentic, definitely try the Chilean Sea Bass in the spicy sauce, snow peas leaves (I know lots of people are now aware of this vegetable since it's usually the first recommendation by the waiter) with scallions and garlic, "dried tofu" with pork as Wai mentioned, and this final one may not appeal to a lot of people, but it's the pork blood and intestines in a spciy, hot sauce (it's the 14th item listed on the menu to be exact). Another we've heard that good is "ma pao" tofu but we were told to ask to have diced shrimp and pork added to it to make it even better.
On Friday, I wrote about cool food along the U.S. 1 corridor, and HowICook wrote about Sysco retail restaurant supply store on U.S. 1.  I'm going to check it out.
The store carries a variety of frozen food, fresh food, pantry items and kitchen supplies. Some of the prices are outstanding but others are downright steep. The quantities tend to be large. You never know what you’re going to find there. I've gotten a variety of things like frozen fried mac & cheese appetizers, kecap manis (sweet soy sauce from the Philippines), and little portion cups with lids for lunches.
Thanks again for all the comments.  I appreciate them all, and it's great if you create a name -- even a fake name.  You can stay anonymous, and I can follow your comments if you place a few. 

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Howard County Restaurant Weeks 2009

Go try a new restaurant later this month when Howard County Restaurant Weeks runs from February 23 through March 8, 2009.

(Update: There was another "restaurant weeks" scheduled for July 27 to August 9, 2009.)

Restaurants participate in Restaurant Week by setting prixe fix menus from $10.09 to $40.09. The week trends high-end, including Bistro Blanc, Jordan's, Greystone Grill, Ranazul and Elkridge Furnace Inn. But you can also get deals at weeknight places like Donna's, Diamondback Tavern and the Crab Shanty. A few highlights:
  • AIDA Bistro will offer a three-course meal for $30.09 with an optional flight of three wines for $10 more.
  • Victoria Gastropub will offer $15 lunches and $30 dinners -- two and three courses, respectively.
  • Tersiguel's in Ellicott City will offer a three-course lunch for $20.09 (including soup or salad, two entrees and three desserts) or a four-course dinner for $40.09.
  • The Melting Pot in Columbia will offer a four-course dinner for $35.09 -- any cheese fondue, a salad, an entree fondue with chicken, beef, shrimp and ravioli, and then chocolate fondue.
The Howard County government has a list of all the participating restaurants. They also have details of a "frequent diners" card where you can win a $100 gift certificate from the Restaurant Association of Maryland by visiting at least six restaurants and returning the card to the Ellicott City tourism center.

If you're finding HowChow because you've searched Google for "Howard County Restaurant Week," please click around and check out local restaurants. Or click here for a working guide To Howard County restaurants.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Link: A Local Cheese Blog

Welcome to a new HoCo blog about cheese. Kate has been posting on Ready, Set, Kate about her resolution to try new cheese every week.

I posted a bit about shopping for cheese in Howard County, but Kate describes and photographs her cheese and even has a spreadsheet linked where she tells you where she shopped. (Hint: so far, Harris Teeter.)

Delicious: Cashew Ice Cream At Desi Market

If you're looking for a pocket-sized treat, check out cashew ice cream in the freezer at Desi Market.

This is Reena's ice cream made in a traditional Indian flavor with cashews and raisins ("kaju draksh"). It's sold in single-serving containers, which makes it fun for a quick treat or to have on hand for a night when you when you suddenly need dessert.

This isn't the all-natural ice cream you'll get from Island Style Ice Cream or Moorenko's. The reality is that the frozen food at Desi in Columbia, Apna Bazaar in Laurel or most other ethnic groceries are closer to the products at Giant than to the organic items at My Organic Market. Deep Food distributes everything from ice cream to naan to shelf-stable lunches, and they make good stuff. The cashew ice cream is creamy and soft, and I scooped up the entire container one evening before dinner. I just wanted a spoonful, but soon I was scraping the bottom.

Desi Bazaar
9179 Red Branch Rd # H
Columbia, MD 21045
(410) 997-8400

NEAR: This is in a commercial area off Rte 108 just east of Rte 29. You can't see anything from Rte 108. You turn north onto Red Branch Road, and Desi Bazaar is in a commercial building on the right. The parking is actually before the store, so we had to U-turn and go back.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Help Me: Meat Markets and Breakfast

Sometimes, you just want the basics.  A great steak.  Some great coffee and eggs.

I'm posting about "What I've Learned" to collect a guide to the best of Howard County food. I'm asking for help, and I'll incorporate comments in the upcoming posts (or update them if the post already happened):
  • Where do you go buy meat?  Where are the best steaks?  The best sausages?  I have tried Laurel Meat Market, Boarman's and JW Treuth.  But I'd like to know more, and even at those three, I want to know what is best.  Special cuts?  Seasonal items?  Why do you go there?
  • Where do you go for breakfast?  Who has great brunch?  I like Eggspectation, but there has to be more.  Diners?  High-end for the weekend?  Any ethnic places serve up breakfast you like?

Second Chance Saloon in Columbia

The Second Chance Saloon has been open for several months now, but I haven't made my way there yet. If you're curious for a review, check out BillZ's report on Live in Howard County or the wonderful comment below from "Mister John."

Mister John commented on a prior post about Second Chance's opening. It's just one guy's opinion, but then this whole blog is just one guy's opinion. Mister John knows the joint so I thought that I'd re-post his report where it would be easier to find. (Thanks to everyone for comments, which I really do enjoy.)

feedback for Second Chance...

Bear in mind this is coming from a Last Chance veteran; one whom haunted the ol pub on a weekly basis for nearly ten years straight. First-name basis with the staff. One of two guys to nail every beer at the final beer tasting. The other guy was my pal sitting across from me every week too. That kinda patron... and yeah, I'm missing the "You must be this smart" measuring line painted on the old front door... ;)

There were a few items on the menu that really 'made' Last Chance. The extensive beer selection was one and it may grow to it's former all-Maryland glory if the new proprietors choose. The chicken wings and the burgers were two others and I am delighted to say they're back.

Nice meaty wings come well cooked without any fluffy breading or rubbery underdone skin like some places. Buffalo style are nice and warm on the edges of your lips while the Stupid Hot wings reminded me a great deal of Gator Hammock; a Florida hotsauce those in the know may have tried. Twists on the old favs include teriyaki and Old Bay.And then your burger arrives, and I dare say it's one of the best I've had... in the state. Plainly fresh and a little less done than you may have ordered (you can't uncook it!) the fresh lettuce and tomato are the perfect compliments. You can option up yours with bleu cheese or mushrooms, Chilli, bacon, etc, but for a simple hot sandwich, Second Chance's kitchen starts with an excellent foundation. And the usual fries on the side are crisp without the need for a lot of salt to cover up grease that's just not there.

One thing that is missing though is my old standby; Shephard's Pie. I miss it dearly and have occasionally tried to make one at home. While I won't hold my breath, I'd really be pleased to see a good 'Pie find its way back to my table at Second Chance. I'll be the goofy guy with the other goofs enjoying wings and a burger on Tuesday nights.Last Chance is dead! Long live Second Chance!

(Update: For Jessie X's post about Second Chance, check out her blog here.)

From the Web site and other chatter, I think that Second Chance has a pretty standard American/bar menu and some interesting beer options. If you're looking for a place for a beer in Howard County, consider Frisco Grille & Bar or the bar at Victoria Gastropub.

Second Chance Saloon
5888 Robert Oliver Place
Columbia, MD 21045

NEAR: Second Chance is in the Oakland Mills village center. It's just east of Rte 29 between Broken Land Parkway and Rte 175. From Broken Land, you go north on Stevens Forest Road. From Rte 175, you go south on Thunder Hill Road.

Friday, February 13, 2009

U.S. 1: The Foodie Frontier

One of the great barriers to finding great food in Howard County is finding the great food.

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.Bold
  • 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.

PREVIOUS: Cheese in Howard County
NEXT: Why I Want Wegmans in Columbia

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Vegetable Shopping in Howard County

You say to-may-to, I say to-ma-to, but we both know that no two tomatoes are alike.

Good produce -- or at least the best they can afford to sell -- is the key for a supermarket. Packaged goods don't change store to store, but I'll drive right past a place that tried to foist limp or dried out vegetables on me. Hard tomatoes? You can keep them.

Giant and Safeway have improved, but you can find better vegetables if you'll invest time, money or flexibility --
  • If you can drive a little farther, you are not going to beat the Korean markets -- namely the H Mart in Catonsville. Spectacular variety. Spectacular prices. Spectacular quality. H Mart sells American, Asian and Latin American vegetables. They last forever in the fridge, and they're generally delicious and cheap enough to buy more or to experiment with something new. The bonus at either the H Mart or the new Super Grand market in Laurel is that the vegetables come with great fish, Asian groceries and Latin American ones as well.
In contrast, I can't recommend Lotte in Ellicott City. Bottom line: Lotte's vegetables aren't as fresh or good-looking. Slightly limp. Slightly dried. I'd hate for someone to shop there and give up on Korean markets. H Mart -- cleaner, bigger and better -- is just down Rte 40. I'd also hate for someone's first interaction to be with Lotte's employees, who unfailingly are fine for a couple visits and then do something aloof or rude. I catch myself and think, "Maybe that was just a cultural ." But I stopped going to Lotte when I realized that no one acts that way to the H Mart. (I still go to Lotte for packaged goods and especially for takeout meats, soups and panchan.)
  • If you can spend a little more for organic, your best bet is Roots, David's Natural Market or MOM's Organic Market (formerly My Organic Market). My real experience is with Roots in Clarksville and MOM's in Jessup. They're both small enough that sometimes they don't have everything on my list. (No red peppers today?) They're both pricey. (Thank heavens, I couldn't afford $5.99 for a pound of red peppers anyway.) But your money buys beautiful produce, and I often see items -- like gorgeous chard -- that I pick up on impulse just because I know it'll be delicious. It's also organic if that matters to you.
  • If you can satisfy yourself with what's in season, you should try out the farmers markets. In 2008, they were Thursday in at the East Columbia library, Saturday at Glenwood Library and Sunday at Oakland Mills. The produce varies, but it runs in seasons from greens in May through apples in October and November. Nothing is cheap, but everything has been great fun. Homestead Farm sells at the Sunday market, and I experimented with its seaweed and greens and lived large on old standards like tomatoes and eggplants. More than any store, the markets can be fun just to wander. The Sunday market has Bonaparte breads and pastries. The Saturday one has milk and more from the South Mountain Creamery.

On top of these options, the regular supermarkets have really improved, and the new Harris Teeter in Columbia puts out a nice display -- including some organics. You can also buy produce at some ethnic grocery stores, although the only ones where I regularly shop are Food Cravings, which vegetables for Indian food, and Lily's Mexican Market, which has basics like hot peppers and onions but also some exotics like fresh cactus.

This is part of the "What I Learned" series of posts. They're organized in rings. See below to continue on the ring about shopping in Howard County. Or click to switch to the posts about different cuisines or posts about areas and ideas.

PREVIOUS: Seafood Markets in Howard County
NEXT: Butchers and Meat Markets in Howard County

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Hunan Legend: The Chinese Menu

For a bite of authentic Chinese home cooking, you can now order off Hunan Legend's Chinese menu -- even if you can't read a character.

Last summer, I had a really bad meal at Hunan Legend and wrote about my frustration because I knew people love that Columbia institution and knew there was a "hidden" menu. Since then, I have raved about Grace Garden in Odenton, which serves up authentic, delicious Chinese food off menus that you can read in English.

A commenter Wai has translated Hunan Legend's Chinese menu. It's 34 items, including appetizers, stirfries, noodle dishes and more. Wai was very humble and says her written Chinese is rusty, but this should be invaluable for anyone who wants to explore specialties that you can't find on the American menu.

My thanks to Wai. This is my favorite post on HowChow. Just one local translating up some fun for anyone else. I'm happy to be the conduit. The image below is the largest that Blogger allows. If you can't read it (and it is hard), email me so that I can forward Wai's TIFF directly. (I'm on the road these days, so please give me a few days to respond.)

(Update: Over 2009, many people asked me for copies of this menu, and they kept bringing them to Hunan Legend. At some point, the restaurant created an official translation. If you're interested, check out the detailed comment below from a Hunan Legend regular who talked to the owners and the June 2009 post about Warthog, who took this menu to Hunan Legend and says that he enjoyed the authentic Chinese food.)

For more about Chinese food, check out my post about Chinese restaurants in Howard County.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Report: Columbia Wegmans to Open In Early 2011

Wordbones posted yesterday on Tale of Two Cities that he has heard that the Wegmans in Columbia will open in the first quarter of 2011.

(This post replaces the earlier one that ridiculously claimed that "Wordbones To Open In 2011.")

LeeLyn's in Ellicott City

I ate delicious macaroni and cheese at LeeLyn's Dining Room in Ellicott City, but I wish that I had had something more.

There is nothing more exciting or ephemeral than the trend of "small plate" restaurants. They're not just for tapas anymore, and little dishes -- with smaller prices and the chance for imagination, simplicity or surprise -- invite you to make your own magic dinner.

LeeLyn's offers itself up as our local upscale "small plate" joint, and we started strong with mac and cheese was really delicious. Creamy and thick without grease. That's fun eating, but the magic never picked up again. We ate the crab dip. The pretzel bread was interesting. But we didn't finish the salad -- something that got lost when the greens acquired the Latin touch of corn, onions and beans, the almost-Asian topping of almost-crisp noodles (tortilla strips?), and a drench of creamy dressing.

I had sat down with high hopes and really wanted to order something more. But we were $30 invested already, and Mrs. HowChow pointed out that the menu wasn't "small plates." It was appetizers. Good appetizers, maybe. But nothing more than wings, crab dip, tuna, tempura vegetables, and on. I almost split a crab cake because other folks seemed to be enjoying the special. Instead, we sat back and realized that no one goes home hungry after mac and cheese and crab dip. We paid and left.

Some people really like LeeLyn's, which made BillZ's well-reasoned "Nearly Best" list in the Live in Howard blog. But I have been to Woodberry Kitchen. Everyone can't match that place, but the "small plate" magic comes from freedom. If I'm picking a bunch of plates, the kitchen is free to offer dishes that are simple or seasonal or electrically unique. A roasted pear with salt and honey. A flat bread with blue cheese and mustard cream. I smile just writing out the names.

Iron Bridge Wine Company pulls off that imagination. Mrs. HowChow still talks about a "burger, fries and shake" of bite-sized meat and the perfect burst of strawberry. LeeLyn's doesn't charge any less than Woodberry or Iron Bridge, and it serves up some good food like the salad's chicken topping -- somehow blackened, still juicy, and sliced beautifully thin. I'm just not sure why the menu had a dozen pub favorites, but nothing seasonal and nothing that I hadn't eaten somewhere else.

Take my disappointment in context. I'm disappointed, in part, because LeeLyn's offers itself up as special and because it's a charming place with some cozy spots and a patio. I'm sort of echoing BillZ's "wishes" for 2009 when he talked about the opportunity for places to serve small plates that aren't a huge investment. Creating an imaginative menu is certainly beyond my skills, but I hope that someone will come along and give it a try.

If you're looking for small plates, definitely try Iron Bridge Wine Co. in Columbia or Ranazul in Fulton, where you want to end the meal with sopapias. (Update: BillZ also reminds me in the comments below that Bistro Blanc serves small plates.) And you can't go wrong driving into Baltimore to Woodberry Kitchen, one of my favorite places in recent years.

LeeLyn's Dining Room
9495 Old Annapolis Road
Ellicott City, MD 21042

NEAR: LeeLyn's is actually very easy to reach. It's right off Rte 108 just west of Rte 29. You turn north at the light for Columbia Road. (Right if you're going west from Rte 29.) Turn right on Old Annapolis Road and go to the end. LeeLyn's is built into a building with a liquor store. The entrance sort of faces Rte 108. We wandered around the patio for a while because we parked in the back.

Lee Lynn's on Urbanspoon

Monday, February 9, 2009

Help Me: Fancy Dining

I know that high end dining in Howard County starts with Tersiguel's, but I haven't been there yet.  Fancy spots are a blind spot for me.  My budget doesn't rise to French food often, and we often driving into the city when we splurge.

What is your local place for a super-special night out?  Tersiguels?  King's Contrivance?  Iron Bridge?  Why?  What makes it worth the check -- and worth passing up great places in Harbor Place or downtown DC?

Monday, Monday: Specials in Howard County

Keep your weekend going!  Sure, it's easiest to relax when you don't have to work, but restaurants across Howard County will offer you something special if you'll come in on a Monday night.  Think about something fun tonight or some other Monday!
  • AIDA Bistro in Columbia does "Neighborhood Night" and offers fresh pasts for $10-$20.  They have some specials and also feature wines at $30 a bottle.
  • Victoria Gastropub offers Beer Club.  You pay $50 a year to join the club, and Victoria offers specials from 5 pm until closing for club members in the bar.  Your first beer on joining the club is free, and Victoria's promotions are all aimed at getting you to try different varieties on every visit.
  • LeeLyn's Dining Room in Ellicott City offers a crab cake special -- $11.50 for a sandwich at lunch or $13.50 for dinner.  LeeLyn's offers specials most nights: burgers on Tuesday, half-price bottles of wine on Wednesday, etc.
If you like the idea of the wine tasting at Iron Bridge, you should also check out the $25 tastings at AIDA Bistro in Columbia.  Ian Mendelsohn of i.m. Wine in Fulton appears on the third Thursday of each month and offers tastes of six wines with light appetizers.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Bonaparte French Bistro in Savage

My sandwich at the Bonaparte French Bistro was all about flavor -- a grainy bread, a few slices of roast beef, Swiss cheese, a few crunchy onion slices.

You need talent to create subtle and delicious food, and my sandwich pulled that together.  Each flavor was great, and they just improved when they were toasted together.  (The onion was just perfect contrast with the tangy cheese.)

Exceptional quality is par for the course at Bonaparte Bread, which has offered breads, pastries and a limited menu in its cafe at the Savage Mill.  In the fall, Bonaparte took over the cafe upstairs, and its bistro offers an expanded lunch menu of sandwiches, tartes, quiches and soups.  It's is a single page, but quite ambitious for a spot that seemed to be run by just two people with options that range from smoked salmon to chicken salad, fresh mozzarella sandwiches to crepes.  (My one critique: Pick salad over fries.  My fries came cold, and there just aren't frozen fries that can compete with Bonaparte's breads.  I bet the salad was delicious.)

Other people have noticed the unique offerings (for example, this Chowhound post), and the cafe built up a clientele while I ate my lunch.  But it's an unusual hybrid.  They're clearly investing in quality -- from the ingredients to the stylish, modern plates and flatware.  But they're still sitting in Savage Mill.  Will shoppers stay for lunch when a bowl of soup costs $7.50 and sandwiches are $9?  Will people drive from Columbia for a special meal when they're served staring into the Bead Store?  The Savage Mill Web site calls this "fast gourmet French food for slow eating enjoyment."  That cleverly captures the tension and the reason to visit.

To me, this is worth checking out.  If you like shopping at Savage Mill, it's a no-brainer.  But it is also a great place to drive to relax on the weekend -- and the perfect place to bring out-of-town guests in the cold -- a little classy, a little unique, and you can walk around Savage Mill for a while.  Check out the game store right next to the bistro.

(UPDATE:  See the February 2009 comment below that the bistro may be closed until April because winter crowds are smaller.)

Remember this is a lunch-only operation.  I'm not 100% sure that Bonaparte French Bistro is the official name.  That is what the Savage Mill Web site says, although its map calls it "Bonaparte Express."

Bonaparte French Bistro
8600 Foundry Street
Savage, MD 20763

NEAR:  The bistro is in the New Weave building at Savage Mill.  The mill is a renovated industrial site that is easy to reach from U.S. 1 just south of Rte 32.  Turn onto Gorman Road from U.S. 1, then turn right on Foundry Street when you see signs for the mill and the large bridge that sits next to it.  The New Weave building is on the far right as you walk from the parking lot towards the mill.

Bonaparte French Bistro on Urbanspoon

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Asian Restaurants in Howard County

I already posted about Chinese and Indian food, but Howard County offers a half world of Asian restaurants that range from Korea down through Vietnam.

These are casual restaurants that I love because I can't cook this stuff -- bulgogi, tom yum soup, sushi rolls, etc. Most are reasonably priced, and all have English menus so you can explore all you want. If you're new to these cuisines, these are great places to start. If you're experienced, they're all good enough to be worth a drive. For some reason, the Asian spots are clustered in the center of the county -- Korean restaurants along Rte 40 in Ellicott City and much of the rest in Columbia.
  • To me, the best Korean restaurants are Shin Chon Garden and Bethany Seafood Retaurant. The renovated Shin Chon offers a pretty location, but both places on Rte 40 offer Korean barbeque, stews and the panchan that make a Korean dinner such fun. For takeout, check out the Lotte supermarket right off Rte 29. (I'm sure there are others in Ellicott City. I also like Mirocjo, which is across the parking lot from Bethany Seafood.)
  • The best Thai restaurants in Howard County are among the best restaurants around. To me, nothing around beats Bangkok Delight, which delivers absolutely authentic cuisine beautifully balancing hot peppers and spices. Great curries. Delicious drunken noodles. It's a cute place, perfectly nice for a date or taking out visitors. Other people love Bangkok Garden in Columbia and Thai Aroma in Ellicott City.
  • The best sushi in Howard County comes from Sushi Sono or Sushi King. Although the two Columbia restaurants aren't jointly owned anymore, they each specialize in unique rolls that make them worth the trip. Try the standard Japanese menu, if you must. But go for the rolls -- like Sushi King's "eastern shore" or "pretty in red" or Sushi Sono's "hurricane eye" -- even though they can be a pricey night. (Update: I also recommend Hanamura in Columbia, which serves fresh, imaginative rolls -- including many at lower prices that the Sushi K's. So you can try more variety and leave with a smaller bill. Get the mochi ice cream.)
  • My favorite Vietnamese restaurant in Howard County is An Loi Pho in Columbia. Great pho, and the fun of both salted plum sodas and Vietnamese coffee. I admit it's a pretty bare spot. If you want something slightly more decorated, go up the block to Pho Dat Thanh, which also has a slightly broader menu as well.
I'm still enjoying the search for new places. It's hard sometimes because I always know that the places above are good. But I'll get out because of recommendations like Chris lauding the sushi at Hanamura in Columbia ("better than Sushi King") and Dan talking up the Little Spice Thai restaurant near Arundel Mills in Hanover ("better than Bangkok Delight").

This is part of the "What I Learned" series of posts. They're organized in rings. See below to continue on the ring about different cuisines. Or click to switch to the posts about shopping in Howard County or posts about areas and ideas.

PREVIOUS: Burgers in Howard County
NEXT: Mexican Restaurants in Howard County

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Cheese in Howard County

Great cheese is an absolute luxury. No one needs to pay $19 a pound for cheese, no matter how creamy or sharp or scented with pine needles and ash.

For everyday food, I'm happy to shred supermarket cheddar or mozzarella -- especially the Bel Gioioso mozzarella balls in the deli at Giant. But great cheese is a wonderful luxury. Cheese has spectacular flavors, and it can be the simplest, fast snack or be one ingredient in the most ornate feast. It can also be quite reasonable if buying cheese means that you skip one meal at a restaurant. A $7 cheese at Roots is expensive -- unless the other option is walking down the strip center for an $8 pasta at Pasta Blitz. With a box of pasta and some sauce, you can turn Roots' cheese into dinner for four. (At least, that's my rationalization.)
  • For me, the best cheese in Howard County is at Roots in Clarksville and My Organic Market in Jessup. Both organic markets offer small displays, but they include varieties that you just can't buy at supermarkets. Goat cheeses. Special cheddar. Stilton. Parmesan, which is absolutely worth buying because it sits for weeks in your fridge waiting to be grated on meal after meal. Roots offers more, and it promotes local producers like Cherry Glen. But I shop at both, although I won't hold any of this against Whole Foods or Wegmans. Cheeses there just taste better, and you can sample, ask questions, and get custom-cut pieces, which I love when I want to sample just a snippet of something new.
  • Of course, your can't rationalize cheese at a restaurant, so you just need it to be super-delicious. That is why I go to Iron Bridge Wine Co. for the cheese plate as part of a tapas-like meal. (Iron Bridge is also a favorite of Elizabeth Large's blog -- which picked a Top 10 Cheese Plates and liked Tersiguel's in Ellicott City as well.) The honorable mention is Great Sage, which often offers cheeses on its seasonal menu.
Three other thoughts: Trader Joe's sells good cheese, although I tend to buy basic like logs of plain goat cheese. David's Natural Market in Wilde Lake probably sells cheese as well. I haven't been there recently, but it's very similar to MoM. And, finally, consider the new Harris Teeter in King's Contrivance. I think the cheese is a step below Roots, and the prices are just as high -- even for cheese that is plastic-wrapped like anything at Giant or Safeway.

(Update: There is a good comment about cheese at Costco, which often does have good food.)

(Update: In early 2009, a local blog Ready, Set, Kate was posting about cheese. Kate's resolution was to eat cheese, and she was posting weekly with descriptions and photos of her finds -- including a spreadsheet that describes where you could find the cheese.)

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.

PREVIOUS: Beer in Howard County
NEXT: U.S. 1: The Foodie Frontier

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Sizars (Caezar) May Move This Month

(Update: Sizar's moved and changed its name to Caezar International Market in early 2009.)

Look for Sizar's Food Mart to move from Columbia to Elkridge in mid-February -- maybe as early as 10 days from now.

I went by Howard County's largest Middle Eastern market Monday, and I heard that they're looking to move in 10-11 days. In January, I posted that Sizars -- which will be called Caezar International Market when it moves -- hadn't made the original November/December 2008 deadline. Construction is never predictable enough to depend on a new deadline, but mid-February is the current working guess.

Sizar's/Caezar will remain a great place for Middle Eastern and Indian groceries, along with a restaurant in the new Dorsey Commons location. However, the Columbia location will close.

For more information about Sizar's, check out all the posts. The pistachio nougat is worth a trip all on its own.

Ceazar International Market and Restaurant (to open in February 2009)
6801 Douglas Legum Drive
Elkridge, MD 21075

NEAR: Just off Rte 103 east of U.S. 1. This is just south of Rte 100.

Sizar's Food Mart (to close when the Elkridge location opens)
6955A Oakland Mills Road
Columbia, MD 21045

NEAR: Sizar's is in a shopping area off Snowden River Parkway just south of the Home Depot and movie theaters. The shopping center also has a Race Pace bike shop and a Let's Dish outlet. From Snowden River, turn north on Oakland Mills Road (right if you are coming from the Home Depot). Then turn immediately right into the shopping area. Look for Sizar's in the building to your right as you enter.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Help Me: American and Mexican Restaurants

Where are the best American and Mexican restaurants in Howard County? I'm posting about "What I've Learned" to collect a guide to the best of Howard County food

I'm asking for help, and I'll incorporate comments in the upcoming posts (or update them if the post already happened):
  • Where are the best American restaurants?  That is a vague term, but I mean places that serve a wide variety of burgers, steaks, chicken, salads.  There must be 100 places with Grille or Pub in the name, hotel restaurants, .  Victoria Gastropub fits this bill.  Same with the Second Chance Saloon  or T-Bonz.  Where do you go?  What are the best things in the house?
  • Where do you go for Mexican?  What is the best dish at La Palapa?  Who has the best margaritas?  Have you tried the places in Laurel?  Does anyone serve Mexican -- as opposed to Tex-Mex -- cuisine?  I relish everything from the taco trucks on U.S. 1 to a quiet dinner at El Azteca, so I'd love your advice.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

The Orinoco coffee shop closed

The Orinoco Coffee House has closed. After receiving an email over the weekend from a reader, I drove past Monday morning and exchanged an email with the folks at the Orinoco wholesale company. The coffee house is emptied out.

That is a real shame because it was a nice shop on McGaw Road off Snowden River. This also means that there are three empty bays in that shopping center after the California Tortilla and Atlanta Bread Company closed as well. (I called the number posted on the California Tortilla door, and they said that it isn't clear if that will reopen.)

The wholesale Orinoco company is still selling at My Organic Market and through the Web site. There are some comments below from other people with information. (Thanks for all the comments). If you are looking for another coffee chop in Columbia, Mad City Coffee is a good bet. Does anyone recommend anywhere else?