Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Help Me: Chinese Restaurants, Pizza and Bakeries

I'm looking for your help. Over the next few months, I'm going to post about "What I've Learned" while writing HowChow.  This series of post will be in three rings -- "cuisines," "shopping," and the catch-all "ideas." The first -- Chinese Restaurants -- will be next week, and I'd like to include your comments both there and in future posts. These are the first three questions:
  • What is your favorite Chinese restaurant? Why? What's the best dish? The best hidden specials? What makes people love Hunan Legend?
  • What is the best pizza in Howard County? Is there any good deep dish?
  • What is the best bakery around? Best bread? Best cakes? Is anyone making exceptional cupcakes or cookies? Any ethnic specialties? What sweets do you crave?
(Update:  I'd still love suggestions about Chinese, pizza or bakeries, and I have created separate posts on those subjects where you can post your ideas.  I'm turning off the comments here so that suggestions aren't split here and on those posts.)

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

King's Contrivance Makes A "Top 10 Dishes of 2008" List

I really need to try King's Contrivance.  Elizabeth Large posted her Top 10 dishes of the year, and she raves about the Columbia restaurant's seafood bouillabaisse "Thai style."  The photo is beautiful.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Go To Grace Garden This Week!

If you have any interest in trying Grace Garden, beat the rush by getting out there this week.

A comment on Chowhound says that the restaurant's owners think that they will be featured in the Washington Post on New Year's Day.  I (generally) believe Chowhound, and I trust that the WPost will join the mania praising the authentic Chinese food served out in Odenton.  That has to drive up business! 

Click here for my original post, which links in turn to several other people.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The City Paper Reviews Victoria Gastropub

The Baltimore City Paper reviewed Victoria Gastropub last week and started off by describing how packed the place was on a weekend night.  (Favorite tidbit: Hip city folks drive to Columbia for "the occasional Merriweather concert or Restoration Hardware jones."  Great line.)  

Mary Zajac's review compliments Victoria's beer selection, the oysters, the burgers and the stout float.  But it smacks the place around for slow service and for not being spectacular.  "[Y]ou could do just as well driving back to Baltimore," the review ends.  Sigh.  If only we could . . .   But it's nice to just know that hip city folks think Columbia has anything that compares to Baltimore.  

All teasing aside, most of the review rings true, and it echoes one of my recent thoughts: The burgers are a real draw, but the "duck fat" never tasted like more than handwaving to me.  I'm mostly amused that Victoria is the restaurant that draws the big city critics.  The WPost's main critic drove up in August, and both reviews prattled on about Columbia's chain restaurants as if the choice out here is a chain or Victoria.

Next time that you're forced to visit Columbia (and that Restoration Hardware jones will only increase if you know they're selling whoopie cushions this season), check out Maiwand Kabob.  A few minutes from the mall or Merriweather, and a quick place to grab Afghan dinner or carry it out to sit on the lawn.

(Update: I posted again about Columbia's Victoria Gastro Pub in 2010.)

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

A Season For Heavy Eating

At the request of a recent comment, this is thoughts about local BBQ.  I'm actually writing some posts that will capture some of what I have learned in a year of looking around at local restaurants.  This is that kind of post.

For barbeque chicken, pulled pork, or ribs, my local place is Kloby's Smokehouse in Laurel.  This is Johns Hopkins Road where Laurel, Fulton and Columbia come together.  Very convenient off Rte 29.  You order at the counter.  You take away or sit at the casual tables.  Folks in the comments also mention Bare Bones and Pig Pickers, both on Rte 40 in Ellicott City.

For pit beef and other barbeque, some people really like Canopy on Rte 40 in Ellicott City.  I enjoyed Uncle Grubes off U.S. 1 in Elkridge.  Nice beef with a charred edge, served with surprisingly good coleslaw.  You order at a counter and can eat outside.  Definitely check to see if they're open in the winter.  I called, but got a busy signal.  (In the Kloby's post, I linked to some Chowhound posts about pit beef.)

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Fatburger: Hiring, Maybe Opening?

The Fatburger in Columbia is still closed, although they say that they're hiring.  I drove past this morning, and there is a sign on the door that says "Yes, we're hiring" and another that says "Coming Soon."

Both Nuttyturnip and the Baltimore Beer Guy saw the same thing and left comments.  Thanks for any updates.  I have no idea what takes so long.  Chick-fil-A built an entire restaurant on Johns Hopkins Road and opened it in the three months that I have been posting that Fatburger seemed close to opening.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Sporadic Posting

HowChow will post sporatically for the next weeks. But I'll be back in 2009.

If you're looking for Howard County food, check out some recent posts about authentic Chinese at Grace Garden, takeout tacos at Lily's Mexican Market, pizza at Pazani Trattoria, and unusual ice creams from Moorenkos or Island Style. Or just scan the list of past posts in the right column.

Also, check out the Baltimore Beer Guy and Live in Howard County blogs, especially BillZ's recent recap of 2008 and his "Best Steak" post.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Wegmans in Columbia: Still Coming

The Tale of Two Cities blog posts about another legal loss by the people trying to stop the Columbia Wegments. The Howard County Board of Appeals dismissed the latest appeal against zoning for the site near Apple Ford on Snowden River Parkway.

Wordbones says Wegmans may be on track for a 2009 or early 2010 opening. Sounds great to me, although I have heard that Wegmans builds slowly because the company is very particular. The Wegmans website already lists store openings through November 2009 and says "TBD" for the Columbia site.

(Update: Check out the anonymous comment about the planned Frederick Wegmans.  On the company's Website, that Frederick store is listed above Columbia.  I don't know whether the list is in the order that they expect to open, but it can't speed up construction to have so many projects at once.  Thanks for the comments.)

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Delicious: Spicy Vegetable Samosas at Aladdin Food Mart

Sometimes the gateway to an exotic treat can be something as common as a freezer door.

I posted once before about 10 no-cook purchases at the H Mart, but you can buy snacks, breads, cheeses and more at small markets on your way home.  Some of the best are in the freezer case like the Indian breads at Apna Bazar or the Salvadoran pupusas at Lily's Mexican Market.

At the Aladdin Food Mart in downtown Laurel, check the freezer for the Shahia-brand samosas if you want to sample spectacular finger food.  These aren't Indian samosas with the thick crust.  They're smaller triangles with a thinner, flakier crust.  The fillings are full of flavor.  They taste fresh with whole peas amid other mashed vegetables and with none of the oil that plagues cheap frozen food.  They're an easy snack or dinner.  They're refined enough to serve at a party, although they're not cheap enough to serve a crowd.

Believe the box.  The spicy samosas are spicy.  They're my favorites, but they're also the snack that sends Mrs. HowChow to the kitchen for a glass of water. 

The Shahia box recommends that you deep fry the samosas.  I defrost them slightly in the microwave, then panfry them in a skillet until they brown.  You get about two dozen in a box, so I generally eat some and keep the others frozen in a Ziploc bag.

Aladdin is a nice shop on Main Street in Laurel.  The owner recently renovated, and he still offers a hefty selection of breads, cheeses, canned goods, and spices.  It isn't as large as Sizar's, but at least it hasn't moved all the way to Elkridge!

If you're exploring in Laurel, Aladdin is across the street from the Laurel Meat Market and a few blocks from the Apna Bazar on U.S. 1.  If you want Indian samosas, they're often for sale at the counter at Desi Market in Columbia.

Aladdin Food Mart
308 Main Street
Laurel, MD 20707

NEAR: Downtown Laurel off U.S. 1. You can take U.S. 1 south or take Rte 216 East from I-95, then turn left at the light on Main Street.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Jesse Wong's Hong Kong Closed

Jesse Wong's Hong Kong closed in downtown Columbia at the beginning of December, according to Elizabeth Large's essential Dining @ Large blog.

The Hong Kong was one of the best local places for dim sum, but it apparently joined Trapeze as a victim of the recent slowdown.  The excellent Jesse Wong's Asean Bistro remains open and serves delicious Americanized Chinese food in a classy restaurant.

If you're looking for excellent Chinese food -- although not the dim sum -- I recommend Grace Garden in Odenton.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Looney's to replace Trapeze in Fulton

The owners of the pub Looney's have leased the former Trapeze and applied for a liquor license at the Fulton site, according to the Tales of Two Cities blog and a report by Larry Carson of the Baltimore Sun. (Look at the last paragraph of the Sun article.)

I found the Sun article because I noticed that someone was Google searching over the weekend with terms like "Looney's Pub Maple Lawn," "Looney's Pub Fulton," Looney's Pub Laurel." That made me remember a November comment on a former post that mentioned Looney's.

What does the Baltimore Beer Guy think this will mean for Howard County?

Nora Cafe & Bakery in Ellicott City

Winter is the season for cookies, and Nora Cafe & Bakery in Ellicott City offers up boxes of sweets for your home or a hostess gift.

I carried a plastic box of Nora's cookies to Chicago, and they were a great dessert at my friend's house. I love staring into a lighted display and picking out whatever catches my eye. The round sandwich cookies with powdered sugar on top and a red jam in between. The butter cookies covered with twirls of chocolate. The almond-flavored ones with the crinkly texture.

The kids in Chicago ate up the almond ones before I could get a taste, but I really enjoyed everything else. A half pound disappeared in a flash.

Nora Cafe also offers a full menu of breakfast, soups, subs, paninis, and pizzas. It is an extensive selection, and everything is made at the restaurant. They also deliver breakfast and lunch. I drove there for a nice Sunday morning bagel sandwich. Real eggs and bacon, not just a kit microwaved somewhere in the back. Based on comments on other posts, people seem to like Nora's bagels.

If you are looking for a Howard County bakery, you should also check out Bonaparte Bread in Savage or French pastries and baguettes or La Boulangerie in Ellicott City for formal cakes and for breads and buns filled with sweet red beans, chocolate, hazelnut cream and other delicacies.

Nora Cafe & Bakery
8450 Baltimore Natl Pike # 8
Ellicott City, MD 21043
(410) 461-6902‎

NEAR: Nora's is in a shopping center with a Safeway. It is on Rte 40 just east of the intersection with Rte 29.

Nora's Cafe & Bakery on Urbanspoon

Friday, December 12, 2008

Second Chance and Diamondback Open

The Second Chance Saloon in Columbia and the Diamondback Tavern in Ellicott City have both opened. These are the former homes of the Last Chance Saloon and the Tiber River Tavern, respectively.

Check out Tales of Two Cities, Live in Howard County and the Baltimore Beer Guy I, Baltimore Beer Guy II for updates on the openings.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Delicious: Daifuku (Sweet Rice Cakes) at Super Grand

If you try out the new Super Grand market in Laurel, check out the small rice cakes filled with red-bean- or fruit-flavored paste at the end of the refrigerated section.

The individually-wrapped sweets -- called "daifuku" -- caught my eye, and I sampled both a red bean and a pineapple version. They're basically a slightly-chewy outside called mochi (imagine the texture, but not the sweetness of marzipan or caramel) stuffed with a sweet paste. They were both delicious. Sweet, but light tasting. They're not actually "light" desserts because the red bean pastry clocked in at 300 calories. Great with tea on a cold night.

Brief Web searches suggest that the Japanese fill daifuku with all kinds of items in Japan, including fresh strawberries and cream. The Super Grand has refrigerated versions with guava, pineapple and other flavorings. I'm partial to red bean desserts. But the daifuku run $1.20 to $1.50 so you can mix and match flavors to suit yourself.

I assume that H Mart and Lotte in Ellicott City also carry daifuku, although I never noticed them before. For more information about daifuku, check out Wikipedia or Chowhound -- maybe starting with this post or this post.

Super Grand
13600 Laurel Bowie Road (Rte 197)
Laurel, MD 20708

NEAR: This is on Rte 197 about a half-mile south of Rte 198. It's right off the BW Parkway, so it's an easy drive from I-95 or U.S. 1 via Rte 198.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Super Grand in Laurel

With the new Super Grand in Laurel, Howard County is now bracketed by Korean markets -- a source for fish, vegetables, and Asian or Hispanic groceries.

Super Grand is part of the Virginia-based Grand Mart chain that offers a similar lineup as Lotte in Ellicott City or the H Mart in Catonsville.  As I wrote about "My Favorite Place For Food," these Korean markets offer quality and selection that make them fun for anyone who loves food, and the Super Grand opened in October to offer those benefits for people in Columbia and south.

Right inside the door, Super Grand offers fresh, low-priced fruits and vegetables that run from traditional American items like cukes and peppers through Asian and Latin American specialities.  Pomelos.  Asian pears.  Thai peppers.  Lemongrass.  Tomatillos.  Baby bok choys.  A half-dozen Asian greens.  Fresh jack fruit.  The exotic selection makes this a great place to carry your ethnic cookbook.  Pick a recipe once something catches your eye.  The reasonable prices let you experiment, and the quality makes Korean markets worthwhile even if you only buy items that Safeway normally stocks.  I bought chard last weekend that was twice as large and way fresher than I had seen anywhere outside My Organic Market.

As you circle the other aisles, you will see a great fish section with live and whole offerings on top of the normal fillets and steaks.  You'll see Asian groceries like rice, noodles, sauces, and desserts.  You'll also see Hispanic groceries from fresh tortillas and Salvadoran cheeses to Goya canned goods to an entire aisle of El Chilar brand spices and dried peppers.  (They even have Zambo's plantain chips and a display of Mexican candies.)   On the weekend, Super Grand offers tastings of Asian spice mixtures and stirfry sauces.  They weren't my favorites, but they could make nice fast dinners. 

The Super Grand difference is that it offers more Mexican goods and several aisles of American products -- Herr's potato chips, Nabisco cookies, Pop Secret popcorn, laundry detergent, napkins.  At Lotte and H Mart, those are often a single aisle, and they don't carry all the national brands.  (Update: Super Grand even carries Jamaican, African and Indian products.)  The Laurel store is about the same size, so it must offer fewer Asian products.  Certainly, the vegetable section is smaller than the H Mart, but my first visit found everything that I wanted.

Thanks to Sheri for telling me about the Super Grand in a comment to an earlier post.

If you want to read more about Asian grocery stores, start with my posts about "My Favorite Place For Food" and "Ten Easy Pick-ups."  Those will tell you what kinds of items you should expect to find at the Grand Mart.  On a first trip, I definitely suggest that you look for produce, for some fish, for frozen dumplings, and for the seaweed wrappers mentioned in the "Ten Easy Pick-ups."

In the back, Super Grand does have a selection of prepared food, and last weekend, they were offering samples of beef, chicken and pork cooked with some bottled sauces.  To my eye (because I didn't try anything), Lotte still has the best set-up to try some Korean panchan and marinated meats for a quick cook-at-home dinner.  H Mart has improved its selection, but the Super Grand still seems aimed at Korean shoppers who know exactly what they're buying.

Super Grand
13600 Laurel Bowie Road (Rte 197)
Laurel, MD 20708

NEAR: This is on Rte 197 about a half-mile south of Rte 198.  It's right off the BW Parkway, so it's an easy drive from I-95 or U.S. 1 via Rte 198.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Grace Garden Chinese in Odenton

The drive and the cuisine at Grace Garden are more than worth the effort if you are looking for an adventure in Chinese food.

If you want to explore authentic Chinese flavors, then you should drive to Odenton -- to Rte 175 just north of Rte 32 -- and dig into the "Eastern" menu. Ignore the paper menu with the takeout standards. Fill your table with sliced pork belly, steamed whole fish, basil chicken, fish noodles, tea-smoked duck, and pocket tofu.

(Update:  Grace Garden closed briefly because of snow damage to its roof, but it reopened in March 2010.)

The Grace Garden food is delicious. Mrs. HowChow and I loved the spicy pocket tofu and the sauteed Chinese broccoli. The broccoli was 100% talent -- humble vegetables, sauteed to that perfect point of cooked but crisp, then dressed in a light sauce. The pocket tofu was 100% new. I had expected something like the tofu pockets that I buy at the H Mart, but instead, the dish looked like dumplings in a thick, chili sauce. Spectacular. The outside skin is thin, but miraculously strong and wrapped around a tender filling of minced shrimp.

I also liked the Sichuan braised beef, which was an enormous bowl of sliced beef with bamboo shoots, onions and something from the bok choy family. Again, this was Chinese cooking like I have rarely had before. The sauce was viscous, and I instinctively tensed at the first bite because thick Chinese sauces have always meant gloppy flavors. But Grace Garden's sauce was spicy and bursting with flavor. The texture was silky, not gloppy.

(Update: If anything, the tofu pockets and braised beef were exceeded by later meals of fish noodles and braised pork.   The noodles are literally noodles made from ground fish. They have the texture of rustic pasta, and a mild flavor that says meat without being fishy at all.  Then, they serve pork without being greasy.  This is pork belly -- the same cut that people use for bacon. But Grace Garden serves pork that is crispy and tender, a flavor of pork and the spicy sauce.)

All this is 20 minutes from most of Howard County, but it comes with a HoCo pedigree. The chef Chun Keung Li opened his own place in 2005 after years at Hunan Manor in Columbia.

Again, go to Grace Garden if you want an adventure. Last summer, this was the center of a food blog explosion that started on Chowhound, and the City Paper named it Best Chinese Restaurant for 2008. People who know Chinese food have posted all about Chef Li's history and talent and about the dishes that blew them away -- Skillet Doux, Skillet Doux II, Tea and Food, This is Gonna Be Good, Minx Eats, reviews on Yelp.  You'll read mentions of how this is truly a family-run place and even some comments that the planned widening of Rte 175 may force Grace Garden to relocate. If those posts interest you, then a table of Grace Garden delicacies will make you happy.

Only a few articles mention that Grace Garden falls somewhere between "Spartan" and "scary." On a dark night, we drove past blocks of shuttered restaurants and found Grace Garden's strip shopping center pressed against Rte 175 between Cluck You Chicken and a barber shop. Inside, there were a handful of tables, a few photos on the wall, no customers, and a teenaged waitress who couldn't have been less engaged. By the end, I was entranced. Mrs. HowChow was happy with her meal, but she wasn't going to clamor for an early return when she could also go back to Bangkok Delight or Jesse Wong's Asean Bistro.

Read the menu. Read all the blog posts, the City Paper review and especially that Chowhound page. After an extremely disappointing meal at Hunan Legend, I drove to Grace Garden with a list of things that I want to order. (Next time, I'm getting the fish noodles and the basil chicken.) Don't count on the waitress to recommend.

(Update: So much for my cute ending. See Skillet Doux's comment below that you *should* get the waitress to recommend if your waitress is Mei, one of the adult owners. That would just make a Grace Garden visit even better.  And see BMoreCupcake's comment on Chowhound that everything on the "American menu" was excellent as well.)

Click here for my 2010 write-up of Chinese restaurants in Howard County.

Grace Garden
1690 Annapolis Road (Rte 175)
Odenton, MD 21113
Note: They're closed on Sunday.

NEAR: This is on Rte 175 just north of Rte 32. It is in a strip shopping center right against the road. There is parking in back of the center.

Grace Garden on Urbanspoon

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Hello Photographers!

Thanks to the spectacular Strobist blog for linking to HowChow.  Strobist draws photographers from around the world, and more people click on the links at Strobist in a day than visit HowChow most weeks.

As noted on Strobist, the photography here is subpar even though my time at a newspaper taught me years ago that arresting photos improved every article.  In my defense, I shot most of this site with a cellphone while trying not to draw attention to the fact that I was photographing, say, the salad bar at Roots.  Sometimes I carry my wife's Nikon, but I panicked the customers at one of the U.S. 1 taco trucks when I pulled into the parking lot and started shooting from my car window.

And I still like my photo of the crabs.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Link: Cooking Classes in Howard County

On the Examiner Web site, Dara Bunjon has posted an extensive and impressive list of cooking classes in Baltimore -- including several in Howard County.

Check out "Cooking with Ben" with Ben Tahranian of Columbia or "Cooking with Donna" at the Donna's Cafe on Snowden River in Columbia.  The Elkridge Furnace appears to have classes (although I didn't find this until after the November class mentioned there), and Tersiquel's offers a "Day with the Chef" where $425 buys you a day with Michel Tersiquel from 5 am shopping to a dinner for two.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Mimi's Kabob in Clarksville

One test for a sandwich is what you do when its sauce starts to drip down your leg.

When I say "your leg," of course, I mean "my leg" because Mrs. HowChow wouldn't eat a sandwich that dripped on her leg.  But I stopped at Mimi's Kabob while driving home from errands.  I ordered the chicken kabob, and the sauce started to drip as I munched on the ride home.

The Mimi's Kabob passes the test:  I wiped off my jeans, but then took another bite as I pulled into the neighborhood.  Juicy white-meat chicken.  Crisp, warm tandoori bread.  Vegetables, and a creamy, slightly cheesy sauce that really made a terrific sandwich (and which cleaned up easily).

Mimi's is a casual Afghan restaurant along the lines of Columbia's Maiwand Kabob.  Appetizers like aushuk, bowlani and pumpkin.  A clay oven to create tandoori bread.  A menu that runs through chicken, beef, and lamb kabobs and ends with a few Afghan desserts like rice pudding or custard.  At lunch, there are even pizza and sandwiches.

This is a friendly place.  When I didn't want a soda, they let me swap out the drink for some pumpkin in the lunch special.  The pumpkin was good, although less tender than Maiwand Kabob.  Mimi's actually has more seating that the Columbia Maiwand Kabob.  

If you like kabobs, check out Maiwand Kabob in Columbia or Parsa Kabob in Elkridge.  If you are in Clarksville, definitely check out Great Sage for vegetarian food or El Azteca for Mexican.

Mimi's Kabob
12345 Wake Forest Road (Rte 108)
Clarksville, MD 21029

NEAR:  This is a block south of Rte 32 on Rte 108.  It is a shopping center on the east side of Rte 108, and the entry is from a side street, so you need to turn just south of the shopping center.  This is a great place to stop if you have been shopping at Roots Markets farther north on Rte 108.

Mimi's Kabob on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Island Style Ice Cream at Golden Krust

Warm up your winter with Jamaican-inspired ice cream -- made in Prince George's County but available at the Golden Krust in Catonsville.

Island Style Ice Cream from Mount Rainier stocks a freezer at the Golden Krust with pints of its tropically-inspired ice cream. Like the Moorenko's at My Organic Market, this is locally-made, all-natural dessert. The banana ice cream contains just milk, cream, sugar and fruit. But unlike Moorenko's ginger flavor, the Island Style banana gets the big thumbs-up from Mrs. HowChow. This is a rich banana flavor with a rich creamy feel. Like a frozen banana milk shake, said Mrs. HowChow. That is high praise.

According to a 2006 WPost article, Island Style's owner Pancita Brydson makes the ice cream from organic ingredients that she buys from a local food co-op. The shop's Web site talks up a bunch of interesting flavors, including stout, grapenut, ginger and fruits like pineapple, coconut and strawberry.

At Golden Krust, the ice cream makes a great take-out dessert to accompany the menu of stews, chicken, fish and especially the patties that you can carry home. Those patties -- pastry wrapped around meat or vegetable fillings -- are warm little treats, perfect to pair with some island ice cream.

If you are looking to try local ice creams, definitely try the Moorenko's at My Organic Market in Jessup (Columbia East). I think the ginger is delicious. If you are looking for other desserts, scroll through this search to check out other "sweet" posts.

Island Style Ice Cream
3829 34th Street
Mount Rainier, MD 20712

NEAR: Island Style is just off Rte 1/Rhode Island Avenue inside the Beltway. This is just a few blocks east of the DC line in PG County.

Island Style Ice Cream on Urbanspoon

Golden Krust Bakery
838 N. Rolling Road
Catonsville, MD 21228

NEAR: Golden Krust is in the same shopping center as the Super H grocery store. It is on Rte 40 just west of I-695. If you are driving east on Rte 40 from HoCo, you'll see a Starbucks and a FedEx at the end of the shopping center. Turn right immediately after the Starbucks. If you miss it, just turn right at the next intersection.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Pazani Trattoria in Elkridge

The great pizza tour rolled through Elkridge, and Pazani lived up to all the hype with pizza that certainly makes it worth the drive.

Pazani offers my favorite kind of pizza -- a crisp, greaseless crust with delicious, but light toppings. The toppings are exceptional, and the crust is strong enough to fold in half around the warm cheese and goodies.

On my last visit, Mrs. HowChow and I split a pie that was half pepperonata (sausage, peppers, onion) and half capricciosa (mushrooms, artichokes, olives, and peppers). These are flavorful cheeses, salty olives, sweet sausage in chunks. Vegetables that tasted like someone sliced in the kitchen and sauteed here, not like anything canned or delivered by an 18-wheeler. But my current favorite is still the spinach-chicken white pizza that I had for lunch one day on the way to BWI -- a slice heated through in the oven and tasting better than most pizza served fresh.

Pazani pulls off a very unusual design. There are no waiters. You order at the counter, fill your own soda, and then wait at your table for the food to be delivered. But it's a classy place, and the modern design and the friendly handwritten menu makes it feel a step above most local pizza restaurants. The kitchen aims a step higher too with good house salads (order the dressing on the side), a dozen entrees, and specials like a stuffed pasta that almost convinced me to skip pizza last time. I want the Pizza Fresca that just opened in Maple Lawn to be this good because it's so much more convenient for me. But Pazani is worth the drive any night that I have time.

Of course, Pazani is a true HoCo restaurant in that it would be almost impossible to run across. I lived a half mile away, and I had to start a food blog before anyone recommended Pazani to me. It is actually quite convenient off Rte 100 or Rte 103.

(Update: Pizza Blogger likes Pazani.  Check out his post here.)

Do you have a favorite pizza? I am still looking for the best places, but click here to read and post about pizza in Howard County. Definitely consider Trattoria E Pizzeria Da Enrico or Luna Bella Ristorante -- both in Columbia. The first is a super-casual joint, and the second is a real restaurant with tablecloths and pies heaped up with toppings.

Pazani Trattoria Italiana
6060 Marshalee Drive
Elkridge, MD 21075

NEAR: This is near the hotel under construction off Rte 100 west of I-95. To get there, exit from Rte 100 onto Rte 103 North. Turn right at the light for Marshalee Drive and look for the shopping center on the right. Pazani is in the section past the Giant. This is the same development as the new hotel that overlooks Rte 100.

Pazani Trattoria Italiana on Urbanspoon

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Ginza of Tokyo -- Opened Near JHU Applied Physics Lab

Ginza of Tokyo opened Friday night in the shopping center with La Palapa Too near the JHU Applied Physics Lab.  This is a new Japanese restaurant on Johns Hopkins Road just west of Rte 29.  We stopped for a menu, but we already had dinner plans.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Delicious: Zambos Plantain Chips at Lily's Mexican Market

You can sample big, exotic tastes in little bags if you browse the chips at Lily's Mexican Market or the other Hispanic markets around.

Zambos plantain chips are one of the dozens of varieties for sale at the front of Lily's. They're like potato chips, but thin-cut plantains instead. And they're dusted with chile, lime and salt -- a spectacular variation on the Old Bay chip or the BBQ classic.

I served the Zambos chips with sandwiches one Saturday. Both of my pre-school guests complained and went back to Tostitos. But the adults reached for more. I thought they were delicious. If anything, less greasy than good potato chips, and the lime flavor was different without being overwhelming like too many Doritos and other snacks.

You could bring a bag home, or you could snack on chips if you stop at Lily's for tacos. They'd be especially good with the carnitas or the carne asada.

Click here for all the posts about Lily's Mexican Market. And if you like Mexican snacks, check out the Mexican candies like the tamarind maracas at Lily's or the El Club Mexicano variety packs at Mexican Bazaar.

Lily's Mexican Market
6490 Dobbin Center Way
Columbia, MD 21045

NEAR: The DMV off Dobbins Road just south of Rte 175. Look for the intersection with a Blockbuster. The shopping center with the DMV, Lily's and Sushi King restaurant is across Dobbins from the Blockbuster.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Fatburger in Elkridge To Open In Mid-December

The Fatburger in Elkridge will open in mid-December -- at least according to two guys working in the store on Monday morning.  (Update:  It opened on January 12, 2009.)

The Fatburger near Columbia on Rte 175 looks ready to go. There were napkin holders on every table when I went past on Saturday and again on Monday morning. The two guys inside looked more like owners/managers than construction workers, and all the construction permits are down.

But the Howard County Fatburger won't open for about three more weeks, one of the guys told me when I opened the door to ask. Take my news with a grain of salt because I thought it looked near opening months ago, and people at Fatburger have given other (now wrong) predictions to other folks.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Link: Diamondback Grill to open in former Tiber River

The Baltimore Beer Guy posts about a rumor that he heard that new owners will open the Diamondback Grill -- local-themes menu and local beers -- at the former Tiber River Tavern in Ellicott City.

A Howard County Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is a great food holiday, and you can have great fun in Howard County looking for food. This is inspirations if you're still shopping -- or for next year:

Friday, November 21, 2008

Howard Magazine Best of Dining 2008

The enormous reporting team over at the Live in Howard County blog has uncovered the October 2008 copy of Howard Magazine and discovered the 2008 Best of Dining survery results.
Check out the Live in Howard County post, which lists winners and honorable mentions that include Victoria Gastro Pub, Ranazul, Maiwand Kabob, Jesse Wong's Asean Bistro, Sushi Sono, House of India, and Akbar.

I have no idea who was surveyed, and even the Live in Howard County blog was unable to locate the article on-line. But congratulations to the winners, and please put a link in the Comments if you can find a link to the survey results.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Link: Go Buy A Huge Lobster At Frank's Seafood

Frank's Seafood is a Howard County treasure, selling crabs, lobsters and other fish to the public from the wholesale seafood market in Jessup.

The clever cooks at Black Coffee and a Donut posted in late October about special-ordering "super jumbo" lobsters from Frank's -- an eight-pound monster and a four-pound "lightweight." They created a fabulous-looking dinner for their father's birthday. (It's a formerly HoCo family whose youngsters have fled for the city and whose parents have retired to the country.) They also have prior posts about how to cook a super jumbo lobster, which involves cooking the crustacean and then disassembling it so that you serve it in pieces.

(The photo is brazenly copied from the Black Coffee and A Donut blog.)

For seafood, the other great options are Today's Catch in Columbia and the H Mart in Catonsville.

By driving to Frank's in Jessup, you enter the wonderland around Rte 175 and U.S. 1. The finds near that intersection include great empanadas at El Patio, a Chinese buffet at Fortune Star, and several taco trucks, including Pupuseria Lorenita's. Check out the Google Maps here.

Frank's Seafood
7901 Oceano Ave # B
Jessup, MD 20794
(410) 799-5960

NEAR: This is in the wholesale seafood market in Jessup. You take Rte 175 east from I-95. You turn right on Oceano Avenue after passing the prison. You turn left into the market. You need to show a driver's license, but Frank's is open to the public.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Take Out Tacos at Lily's Mexican Market

Lily's Mexican Market now leads the parade of Howard County taco trucks.

Ok, so Lily's isn't actually a truck. It's one of the best ethnic markets around. But the takeout counter that Lily's opened with its fresh tortilla machine transforms a great place for groceries into a spectacular place to stop for a quick meal.

The tacos are a touch more expensive than El Nayar or the trucks on U.S. 1 like Pupuseria Lorenita's in Elkridge and Pupuceria Y Taqueria Los Pinos in Laurel. But for $2.50, you get a much larger taco -- meat filing, vegetables, salsa, and two of Lily's warm tortillas. Three was honestly too much in one sitting. These are simple fare, but I loved the carne asada and the pork carnitas. The barbacoa at Lily's is barbequed meat more like pulled pork than the chopped steak that you get at other taco joints.

They're an easy lunch for $7 -- two tacos and a drink. Lily's has Mexican sodas in the cooler, but it also has horchata and tamarind drink in fountain dispenser across from the takeout stand. The horchata was a nice diversion, although I think the metal cart outside the U.S. 1 flea market was a touch creamier. If you have the interest, you should definitely sample the tacos around town.

Lily's also does takeout chickens -- quarters and halves. You can build yourself a great takeout dinner with some avocados from the produce area or maybe some chorizo from Lily's butcher. You can pair it all with one of the lightly sweet pastries near the entrance for dessert.

While you're waiting for your food, check out Lily's aisles, including the jars of yellow aji peppers.  If you like tacos, consider buying cactus in Lily's produce section for easy cactus tacos.  If you like Mexican food, definitely check out El Azteca in Clarksville or La Palapa Too in Laurel.   If you are looking for great takeout dinners, try Lotte in Ellicott City for the makings of a Korean feast.

(Update: I had an old address here. Lily's is at 6490 Dobbin -- in the same shopping center as the DMV.)

Lily's Mexican Market
6490 Dobbin Center Way
Columbia, MD 21045

NEAR: The DMV off Dobbins Road just south of Rte 175. Look for the intersection with a Blockbuster. The shopping center with the DMV, Lily's and Sushi King restaurant is across Dobbins from the Blockbuster.

Lily's Mexican Market on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Delicious: Ting Soda at Golden Krust

High-quality soda may sound like an oxymoron, but the grapefruit flavor of Ting soda is the exception that proves the high-fructose rule.

Don't get me wrong. I drink a Coke Zero every afternoon, so I'm so anti-soda zealot. But I drink cola for the caffeine, and I buy the Ting soda for the taste.

Ting is a Jamaican brand that makes the soda that Fresca cheapens off with artificial flavor. Ting is a small bottle, but it really tastes like grapefruit and sugar. That's because the ingredient list includes only items that you have actually seen like grapefruit, sugar and water. It's a refreshing flavor, one that pairs nicely with the rich taste of a spicy beef patty from the Golden Krust Bakery.

This is one of the unusual drinks like ginger beer that you could store in the closet for a day that you want a treat or want something exotic to offer guests. Buy it at the Golden Krust Bakery in Catonsville, where you can also buy locally-made Jamaican-style ice cream.

(Read the comments for Wordbones' excellent suggestion.)

Golden Crust Bakery
838 N. Rolling Road
Catonsville, MD 21228

NEAR: This is in the same shopping center as the Super H grocery store. It is on Rte 40 just west of I-695. If you are driving east on Rte 40 from HoCo, you'll see a Starbucks and a FedEx at the end of the shopping center. Turn right immediately after the Starbucks. If you miss it, just turn right at the next intersection.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Great Sage in Clarksville

Everyone loves Great Sage, which is probably why I need to eat slowly to really enjoy myself.

Great Sage in Clarkville comes with no meat, but a mess of hype from places like the WPost and the Sun.  It's a vegetarian restaurant from the same people who own the Roots grocery, and the kitchen serves a seasonal menu of healthy, hearty food.

This is a beautiful place.  Elizabeth Large named it the "Most Romantic for Vegetarians," and she was right to tout its soft lighting (although the table cloths appear to have disappeared since 2007).  The decor is modern and understated with wooden carvings and a beautiful waterfall on the farthest wall.  With one side facing trees, it pulls off sophisticated because it shows a little less parking lot than Aida Bistro or House of India.

I'm prattling on because I'm not sure how to describe the food.  I enjoy it.  On my last trip, I went alone and ate slowly while reading a magazine.  A Mexican-inspired appetizer with beans, brown rice and guacamole perched on a crisp tortilla.  Then a Thai-inspired coconut-milk curry with tofu and squash.  They were delicious.  They were also relatively subtle, relying on the expectation that people who choose Great Sage are people who relish well-cooked winter squash.  This isn't the spicy-sour zest that comes from Bangkok Delight's curries.  It's a different cuisine that pushes the vegetable flavors to the front.

My advice is to focus on dishes that look like vegetables -- the soups, the Mediterranean plate appetizer, the curries, the dishes that aren't masquerading as something specific.  My one disappointing visit was the night that I ordered "bulgogi" and Mrs. HowChow ordered a "burger."  We love those dishes.  Great Sage doesn't serve them.  It serves a soft vegetable patty on a roll and serves some kind of soy product in a mild sauce.  The kimchi next to the soy product was delicious, but there wasn't really bulgogi or a burger on our table so our expectations made them disappointing.

So go for vegetable flavors in everything from salads to sandwiches to complex entrees and a vegan carrot cake.  (I haven't tried the cake yet.)  This is a skilled kitchen that rotates its menu, and the prices are reasonable enough that you can take risks.  Plus, everything is healthy so order extra.  I overate on that night of tostada and Thai curry, but too much brown rice and vegetables leaves a person gorged but happy.  I carried out half the curry and ate it for lunch later in the week.

Great Sage offers Sunday brunch and special nights like bellydancing and "green singles" mixers.  They'll also adjust to special dietary needs like gluten or peanuts. 

(Update: The Lunching in the DMV blog wrote up Great Sage.   It is a nice description and sounds similar to my thoughts:  It's a delicious place, but you'll like it best if you're open to or seeking vegetarian cuisine.  And late, the Black Coffee and a Donut blog talked up Great Sage as well -- with some great photos of everything from drinks to dessert.)

(Update II:  Great Sage went vegan in 2010.)

If you like Great Sage, you are going to love the organic market Roots in the same shopping center and should probably also check out David's Natural Market in Columbia and My Organic Market in Jessup.  Great Sage is also right down Rte 108 from El Azteca.

Great Sage
5809 Clarksville Square Drive
Clarksville, MD 21029

NEAR:  This is on Rte 108 in the same shopping center as the Roots supermarket.  It's a few lights north of the intersection of Rte 108 and Rte 32.

Great Sage on Urbanspoon

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Frisco Grille & Cantina in Columbia

Beer is the key to the Frisco Grille and Cantina in Columbia. This is a classic Howard County spot -- a shopping center bay that looks anonymous from the outside, but has been tricked out inside with something special.

The special at the Frisco Grille is beer. Nineteen rotating taps of high-quality beers from craft breweries. Dozens of more labels in bottles. On Tuesday, there is trivia. On Wednesdays, there a "pint night" special with free glasses and the chance to meet the people who brew or sell the special beers.

Frisco Grille is a pub, which is ironic considering that it calls itself both a "grille" and a "cantina." There is a small bar and then tables scattered around the room. Televisions screens turned to sports and news. A menu that runs to "Cal-Mex" items like burritos, enchiladas and quesadillas and to sandwiches like a lightly fried chicken breast or fajita meat on a kaiser roll. This isn't a Top 10 restaurant. It's a pub menu where you go for the place and the beer, and you enjoy good food with a few highlights like superb onion rings, a unique spicy mustard, and an appetizer of risotto griddled into lightly-crisp pancakes. It's also a pretty modern pub menu that offers lighter fare like seafood and vegetarian options built on beans, spinach, and tofu.

But this isn't Great Sage. You can get a cheese-and-chorizo dip to accompany your beer and conversation. The draft beers change, but the electronic beer list recently included Dortmunder, Lagunitas, Bear Republic, Weyebacher, La Couffe, Clipper City and Brewers Art. That is probably a treasure trove if you're a beer aficionado, and The Baltimore Beer Guy writes often about the rotating options. But it's also fun if you're a neophyte who wants to taste a few beers before you order your pint. Frisco Grille has no pretentions. You can sample and explore.

(Update: Frisco Grille will expand in 2010 to take over the tailor next door. The Baltimore Beer Guy reports that they'll double the number of taps and build a bar in the new space. Also, Frisco has added new dishes on a "secret" side menu. I enjoyed Gus' Green Tacos -- firm white fish sauted in a mixture of tomatillo sauce and the house-made green hot sauce. It's

a nice taco, and I especially liked the mango salsa on the side. I always love food that surprises me. I don't know that I would have ordered tacos with a creamy sauce lined across them. But Gus' Green Tacos had a really nice balance -- littlecreamy, little lime-sour and just enough heat to be refreshing.)

(Update: Frisco Grille moved to Dobbin Road and became Frisco Tap House.  It's definitely work checking out.)

Frisco Grille is one of the best places for beer in Howard County along with The Perfect Pour's wall of beer and Victoria Gastro Pub, which also serves craft beers on tap at its bar.

Read more about Frisco in the
Baltimore Beer Guy, Adventures in Baltimore Restaurants, or The Beer Advocate.

Frisco Grille & Cantina -- moved and became Frisco Tap House
8865 Stanford Bouelvard
Columbia, MD 21045

NEAR: Frisco Grille is off Dobbin Road south of Rte 175 in a shopping center with Pub Dog. From the north, take Rte 175 and turn south on Dobbin Road at the intersection with a Chik-fil-A and a Kmart. The shopping center is on the left after the second light. From the south, take Snowden River Parkway and turn left on McGaw Road at the light with Apple Ford. Turn right at the light with Dobbin, then look for the shopping center on the right.

Frisco Grill and Cantina on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Woodberry Kitchen: Worth The Drive To Baltimore

You have to leave Howard County some times -- so make it a night worth remembering at Woodberry Kitchen.

This is a casual, but refined restaurant just off I-83 in Baltimore. It's part of the old Clipper Mill, and it's a shining example of the new "local produce" cuisine. Local spinach. Chesapeake oysters. Chincoteague clams. The menu actually lists the farms and suppliers where Woodberry sources your meal.

But Woodberry is fun. Really fun. Like $1 for a bowl of popcorn -- tiny kernels called ladyfinger and the perfect coating of butter and sea salt. That is Woodberry cooked down to the essence -- something delicious and slightly unusual, seasoned or paired with something intelligent. No individual ingredient is exotic. Every taste on the table was unique.

The popcorn, buttery but somehow not greasy. A small basket with a half-dozen different types of bread. Pickled vegetables. Chevre cheese served with tiny raisins and a "vin cotto" -- a dark, sweet vinegar that tasted like thickened wine. Mrs. HowChow and I never touched an entree because we built a tapas-style dinner for ourselves from the "small plates" half of the menu.

The high point was pears roasted, then served with buckwheat honey and sea salt. It sounds simple. It tasted complex, and I cook just enough to recognize skill when I see it. The best part was that plate was $5, so we could also sample a pear flatbread with blue cheese, rocket and mustard cream. Our table literally overflowed, and I never ordered the oysters that first caught my eye because I kept noticing food that I wanted a little bit more. Everything changes seasonally, so I think I could go back in a few months to try an entirely-different menu.

Woodberry could be expensive. Entrees run $15-25 except for the $12 burger, and the imaginative cocktails (cider press - apple brandy, elderfloer, citrus, sparking cider) and the coffee drinks were enticing. Add that liquor and side dishes, and you could spend a big night quickly. But it's delicious, and frankly, you can eat reasonably as well. We passed on liquor and gorged on six small dishes, dessert and coffee for just $54. It was a happy birthday for me.

Make reservations. The place fills up quickly.

(Update: Woodberry is one of absolute favorites.  We have been back several times, always ordered tapas-style and always amazed by the fruit and honey variation of the pears above.  I added photos here of nectarines with honey that was a late-July version and of local fish thin-cut and served like sashimi.)

If you want to try this kind of seasonable cuisine closer to home, I do recommend Iron Bridge Wine Company in Columbia.

Woodberry Kitchen
2010 Clipper Park Rd # 126
Baltimore, MD 21211
(410) 464-8000

NEAR: Mrs. HowChow navigates in Baltimore. Google says you can drive to Woodberry Kitchen in 30 minutes from Columbia by taking Rte 29 to I-70 East and then local roads to Clipper Park Road. Check that out.

To read a half dozen other reviews and blog posts about Woodberry Kitchen, check out the Urbanspoon page by clicking this icon:
Woodberry Kitchen on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Moorenko's Ice Cream at My Organic Market

As the weather chills, you need to look inside for fun ice cream.

My Organic Market fits the bill now that Rita's, Soft Serve and the Snowball stand are closed for the season. MoM offers unusual ice cream from Moorenko's, a high-end Virginia company that started as an ice cream stand and now sells wholsale.

On a recent day, the MoM in Jessup ("Columbia East") had three flavors -- a spicy chocolate, a ginger, and a blueberry. At almost $5 a pint, they're pricey, but I'm a fan of small amounts of really good dessert. Blueberry was good, but ginger was an inspiration. It really tastes like ginger, but creamy and not bitter like strong ginger flavor can get. To me, this was unique and delicious enough to be worth driving to try -- especially because you can peruse the MoM shelves for other things (like whole grains). To Mrs. HowChow, it raised the question: Why do I want ginger in ice cream?  She'd prefer the Ben & Jerry's flavor Americone Dream.

Moorenko's changes its flavors regularly, but MoM mixes up its selection -- like pumpkin in late December. When I asked, the MoM employee told me that they have recently had the blueberry and ginger all the time. She said you could just call and ask what they have in stock!

(Update: Roots in Clarksville also sells Moorenko's ice creams)

If you are looking around My Organic Market, check out the Chinese buffet at Fortune Star Buffet in the same shopping center and the empanadas at El Patio, which is across Rte 1.  If you like ethnic and organic markets, check out my listing of markets across Howard County.  (Update: Fortune Star closed in 2011.  The empanadas are still delicious.)

The best ice cream is actually gelato. Capogiro in Philadelphia charges a ridiculous $10 a pint for daily-made gelato, but it mails ridiculously-delicious flavors. You have to splurge on six pints. A spectacular gift.
My Organic Market (now Mom's Organic Market)
7351 Assateague Dr. #190
Jessup, MD 20794

NEAR: It's on Rte 175 just east of I-95. There is a large shopping center on the right just after you cross Rte 1. Look for the Starbucks. MoM is in that shopping center. It's a bit tricky to return home. You have to exit east-bound on Rte 175 and U-turn at the next light.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Link: The Live In Howard County blog

Don't believe me! Now you can get thoughts about Howard County restaurants -- and other "best of HoCo" -- from the Live In Howard County blog.

BillZ has lived for 15 years in Ellicott City, Columbia and now West Friendship. He is posting about restaurants -- both capsule comments and longer reviews -- and other aspects of local life.

Compare Live In's Top 10 Restaurants and his Nearly Top 10 Restaurants with my thoughts. Check out his review of Bistro Blanc -- a restaurant in Western HoCo opened by former Iron Bridge Wine Co. chef Marc Dixon. That place is new to me. And peruse a list of restaurant specials that he has assembled -- special menus at Iron Bridge, Elkridge Furnace and other places.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Link: The Baltimore Beer Guy

Talk about a treasure map! Check out The Baltimore Beer Guy blog for a map of the HoCo scene for suds.

The blog comments about beer, and it has a spectacular side column of links to beer events, restaurants, homebrewing resources, and dozens of other beer sites, blogs, etc. The blog is nicely written. It is densely-packed with real information about places, events, etc. Looks like unique information for the local beer nut, but still accessible to anyone just thinking about where to go out tonight.

The local highlight is the Howard County Beer Map. The pretty young things at the Washington Post's Going Out Guide don't make it to Columbia, but Brian has cased the county and recommends places in both the HoCo map and another of Good Beer/Liquor Stores. He also has posts about places like Dog Pub, Frisco Grille, Victoria Gastro Pub, The Perfect Pour, etc. -- click here and here.