Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Best Lunches In Howard County: What Do People Eat When They Can Order Anything?

The high tech 1990s are alive and well in a tiny sliver of Howard County.  I am usually a train-ride away at lunch time, but there is at least one company where the employees not only eat locally -- they eat a free lunch.

Sven was nice enough explain what happens when people can pick almost any lunch that they want.  Each employee get an allowance for the week.  Each day, Sven's company picks two restaurants -- most from Howard County, but some from near Arundel Mills or Baltimore.  It's a rotation, but favorites get on the schedule every two weeks.  You can order whatever you want each day, but you need to cover anything above your allowance for the week.

House of India -
Too pricey for takeout lunch?
What restaurants get picked?  What dishes are the best when they have to survive a delivery ride?  What are the favorite lunches in Howard County?  Sven has the answers:
The Restaurants

Of the two restaurants picked, one is almost always American cuisine and the other is typically something more exotic. In this way, the restaurants are divided into two groups: 'safe' and awesomely out there. The safe restaurants are your chains like TGI Friday's, UNOs, Baja Fresh, Qdoba, Cheeburger Cheeburger, Green Turtle, and Subway.  If you couldn't guess, I'm more of an adventurous type and so are the majority of my immediate coworkers. These restaurants include Tandoor Grill, Bangkok Garden 9, Pho Dat Than, House of India ("HoI"), Flavors of India ("FoI"), Maiwand Kabob, La Palapa Too, El Nayar, Frisco Grille and BGR The Burger Joint. 
Now I understand this could be super controversial and generate quite the debate. I would just like to stress the "to each their own" philosophy. Of these, five have solidified their place on the rotation and show up every two weeks like clockwork. These are the restaurants my coworkers get most excited about, and I agree:
  • Tandoor Grill on Johns Hopkins Road
  • Bangkok Garden 9 in Columbia
  • Maiwand Kabob in Columbia
  • Pho Dat Than in Columbia
  • BGR- The Burger Joint in Columbia
These are the favorites because they are cranking out authentic food from their respective nationalities and provide a unique culinary experience difficult to replicate, all from a styrofoam box. Their food is affordable. HoI and FoI aren't mainstays because they are simply too expensive for our budgets.  Since you can't put an entire Indian buffet in a carryout container, you are forced to order their entrees for $15+ and therefore have to give up a day or two of the week.  A sacrifice that is well worth it maybe once a month, but no more.

Now there is an elephant in this list.  You may be wondering: Why the Hell is BGR up there?  It certainly is not 'authentic' or exotic.   I have read the interesting debate about this establishment, and I confess I've never eaten in.  But I must say, their dishes are burger perfection, and the people I've talked to about it agree.  They are the only carryout burger place that actually cooks your burger to your chosen temperature.   
Their burgers are definitely some of the more expensive ones out there, but are the same as sit down burger prices, better, and more imaginative. The burgers are moist now matter how you order them cooked, and their combinations of toppings just flat out work. When I take one bite into my Wellington, Animal Collective's 'My Girls' plays in my head, my surroundings melt away and I'm floating around in space with a chimpanzee. What kind of sauteed mushrooms are they putting in that thing? 
Maiwand Kabob - Grilled meats!
As for the sides, go to your pantry or vending machine and grab a bag of chips.  Meal = Done. One day I found a coworker starring at his colossal Cheeburger Cheeburger burger with a bewildered look.  I asked him, "Are you alright?  I thought Cheeburger was one of your favorites?"  He replied, "After having BGR, it's not the same. It just can't compare." Nuff said.

In summary, these places are a great value, authentic, and arrive relatively quickly, making them the 'starting line up.' A few notable points:
  • Tandoor Grill - Lunch special for $7.99. You get four chicken dishes, two vegetable dishes (the real stand outs) and a choice of rice or naan.  Quite authentic and rival HoI and FoI for half the price.  Also, it's the closest thing you'll get to an at home Indian Buffet that you didn't cook yourself. As you may imagine, it's easily enough for two. But it's all for you!!!!!!!  Can you say, tomorrow's dinner?  I just did.
  • Bangkok Garden 9 - Thai is just a captivating cuisine, and everyone just seems to fall for it.  Not to mention Garden 9 executes well.  The curries are a great value and I've had them all. Green is the best, has more going on/ complex flavors. You get very little rice, but the average person will probably only eat half of the curry.  Another dinner?!?!?!
  • Maiwand Kabob - Meats grilled perfectly, arrive hot and heat up in the microwave real nice. What more do you need?
  • Pho Dat Than - Everyone looks at this place and thinks pho.  Not a bad thing to do, but their lunch special is the thing to get.  For $6.95 you get a large helping of rice, a salad, fish sauce and a choice of three entree items.  These items include lemon grass grilled pork, chicken beef or shrimp, tomato stewed tofu, spring roll, stewed vegetables and beef stewed vietnamese style.  If these option sound good, it's because they are and far better than what you're imagining right now, I guarantee it.  Grilled pork is by far everyone's favorite, slightly sweet and very tender.  The spring roll is also probably the best spring roll I've ever had.
And this is all based on the food after it has traveled. All of this food probably sits around for 30 minutes to an hour before I eat it. I can't even imagine how they'd taste freshly cooked.

For the most part, foodies think alike so there aren't many restaurants that I like and can not get others to like. However, I am a huge fan of Jesse Wong's Asean Bistro but cannot convince my coworkers that it's better than your dime a dozen Chinese carry out joints. There's a misconception that kung pao chicken is the same every where, which is not true!  Restaurants come and go, even the loved ones. I guess that's the life of a food enthusiast in Howard County.
Where do you eat lunch in Howard County?  I am going to re-think a series of "What I Have Learned" posts that I ran in 2009.  What would be the best places to eat lunch?  I like Sven's list, but also have to start with Bon Fresco Sandwich Bakery and R&R Taqueria.


Amber said...

Forget great government benefits, I want to work for Sven's company!

hoco connect said...

Mirchi Wok and Mango Grove lunch buffets are the best! Last two times I have been there the Mirchi Wok seems to have closed and some of the meat dishes are now served at the Mango Grove. I have heard that the building the Mango Grove is in will be torn down soon. Rumor is that the Starbucks on the other side of Dobbin will move over to a new building with a drive thru.

LauraAllred said...

That would be a huge bummer if Mango Grove left. Hopefully they will move to a new location and not disappear off the map. I shake my fist at you, Starbucks!

L. Yao said...

I used to live near Maiwand Kabob and ate there quite often. I love their Thursday special, but I feel their service is getting worse and the price is more expensive before. The waiting time is also getting longer (lunch time is terrible. I waited for more than 40 minutes last few times). Now I prefer go to other places for lunch. Royal Taj and the Mexican grill truck on Berger Rd are my favorite now.

P90 Noir said...

The Crepe Cafe at Cafe de Paris is excellent. I'd eat there at least weekly if it were closer to my office. The bento boxes at Hanamura are also great.