Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Basics: Pizza And Chinese Rule The Suburbs, So These Are The Pizza And Chinese That Rule

Seafood at Grace Garden
No one agrees about the best of the basics.

By the numbers, our shopping centers are dominated by pizza and Chinese food.  You can find both almost everywhere, yet few people agree on what's the best.  The comments here or on Yelp run negative to positive for each joint.  It's often a matter of taste.

This is part of HowChow's 2012 guide to Howard County -- "Welcome Home."  Ten posts to prove there are dozens of places worth your time, that you can find great food all across the county.  It's written for someone new to Howard County (maybe a link you send a friend thinking about moving here), but hopefully it's useful to anyone.

Whatever your taste, you're going to find your own favorites -- from daily pepperoni to pies covered in clams, from your General Tso's to mainland authentics.  So here are three of each to get you started:
Coal Fire Pizza - Taste the char
  • Grace Garden in Odenton.  This is a niche market.  Hands down my favorite Chinese food, but it's a terrible location and barebones decor.  So you go for exquisite dishes and bring people who will thrill at finding something unlike any other menu around -- like our favorite fish noodles.
  • Jesse Wong's Asean Bistro in Columbia.  This used to be Mrs. HowChow's favorite delivery, and they do a nice American Chinese menu in a pretty dining room.
  • Red Pearl in Columbia.  Wonderful dim sum.  Terrific authentic Szechuan dishes.  Try the lamb with cumin.
  • Facci Ristorante on Johns Hopkins Road.  They char the pizza, and they do light toppings with terrific ingredients and inspired ideas -- like clams on pizza.
  • Trattoria E Pizzeria de Enrico in Columbia.  This is an institution, and they make nice New York style pizza and a ricotta-filled calzone.  I still need to try the gnocchi with aurora sauce.  In warm weather, you can sit outside and then grab Rita's for dessert.
  • Coal Fire Pizza in Ellicott City.  They introduced the super-hot oven to Howard County.  The pizza quality can vary, but the good ones come with the right char, nice sauce, and thin flavorful layers of mozzarella and toppings. 
These spots are all casual, but they vary widely in style.  In any Facci-Trattoria-Coal Fire lineup, I could tell you which oven kicked out which pie.  (I could also recognize the personal-sized pizzas from Pub Dog in Columbia.  Also worth checking out.  It's a casual bar.)  In the same way, Jesse Wong's does great versions of Chinese restaurant classics while Grace Garden does dishes that I have never heard before.

As always, HowChow is just a narrow opinion.  Chinese and pizza make common takeout or delivery, but we tend to grab other things when we need a weeknight break.  (Like a baseball manager in need of relief, Mrs. HowChow calls for House of India.)  You can read all the Chinese and all the pizza posts.  You can also see a 2010 post about authentic Chinese that highlighted Hunan Taste in Catonsville, Noodles Corner in Columbia and others.  And definitely listen to the comments about where people go for their favorite stuff.

What I Don't Know:  Hunan Legend and Hunan Manor are Columbia institutions.  I haven't been impressed enough to bypass my favorites to eat at them recently.  East Moon and Asian Palace are new Asian fusion restaurants.  I haven't eaten at East Moon yet.  Where do you go for pizza or Chinese?  What are your favorite dishes there?  What do you order?


Alicyn DelZoppo said...

I just went to Jesse Wong's on Monday night for the first time in about 10 years. It used to be our favorite Chinese restaurant. I had the grilled squid and the shrimp in Pinot Grigio sauce - both were very good. The restaurant was very quiet, though it was a Monday and the day before Valentine's Day.

I love the Red Pearl's King Pao off of the Schezuan menu.

PF Changs (I know you're cringing) is a go to for the lettuce wraps and double pan fried noodles.

Peking Chef in Hickory Ridge Village Center isn't bad for take out. They added a sushi place to the inside so now they're a combo of a lot of things.

Asian Fusion has a couple of Chinese dishes that I found to be pretty flavorful.

I've been to Hunan Legend a couple of times and found the dishes I got (can't exactly remember) to be great.

We used to do take out from Hunan Diamond in Harper's Choice and found that they put barely any meat in the dishes and the were over the top greasy.

Pizza....I love Coal Fire. Margherita Pizza with Signature Sauce and Banana Peppers. If you want more traditional pizza, I've liked the Pasta Blitz off of Route 100 (been a year or two) and Upper Crust on Centre Park Drive.

Anonymous said...

Used to love Jesse Wong's but the service and quality of food have gone way downhill over the past two years. We used to go there about once every week or two, but the last three times we were there (yes, we keep giving them another chance!), the service was ridiculously slow even though the restaurant is always pretty empty, quality of the food (especially chicken) was poor, some dishes were served cold and had to be sent back, etc.

As for pizza, by far the best (IMHO) is Pastablitz on Waterloo Road at Snowden River Parkway. Their entrees are nothing great, but their pizza is the closest to "real" (i.e. New York) pizza that I've found anywhere outside the five boroughs. My kids, the true pizza connoisseurs, were not that impressed with Facci or Coal Fire after trying each a couple of times.

Zevonista said...

For Chinese, try Hunan Taste in Catonsville, on Rolling Road near Rt 40. Authentic Hunan Cuisine. It's close to Grace Garden for quality, and the ambiance/decor is a LOT nicer.

Matt said...

I live near Pasta Blitz and Coal Fire-they are 2 different animals but both very good. PB is a good tasting, chewy crust like NY pizza, but Coal Fire is a charred specialty experience-and possibly only for connoisseurs. Hunan Express in the Marshalee/Giant shopping center has great food and never lets me down-my whole family asks for it once a week at least. It is only takeout though...a lot of these picks are probably based on what we grew up thinking was perfect food, so it's probably a little different for everyone.

HowChow said...

@Zevonista -- Hunan Taste is a great option. I want to go back to try hot pot, and the food is delicious. It's a very pretty spot.

@Matt -- I think you're absolutely right about personal taste. I tossed out some starting spots, but I know there are takeout places that are really good -- either because they have a dish you personally love or because they are turning out above-average stuff in an average location (like R&R or Bon Fresco). I'd love to hear about neighborhood Chinese places and what people order there.

Marcia said...

We've had the pizza in CT that Coal Fire seems to emulate, and it definitely is a "you either like it or you don't" kind of thing. Some do not like the char at all, and want more toppings. I know you are cringing again, but we've never been disappointed with Bertucci's pizza or sandwiches. Yes it's a chain, but it's a perfectly good go-to spot for lunch if you're running errands on that side of town.

EastCoastMatt said...

back a few years ago, for about a year after coal fire opened, they were horribly inconsistent, but they seem to have it down now. I've been getting good consistently well cooked pies from them over the past handful of times I've visited over the past 6 months. I'm a believer again.

Courtney C. said...

I know most people either love it or hate it, but I'm a huge Ledo's fan. We rarely eat pizza (twice a year) and I always head straight to Ledo's to get my fix. I like the Fulton location best. As for Chinese, we rely on Mandarin House in Laurel off All Saints Road. Its American Chinese, but the egg rolls are the best anywhere and we love the kung pao chicken. They are carryout or eat in only and have been in business for as long as I can remember. They must be doing something right!

Amber F. said...

Have you been to Hunan House in Scaggsville? Not the fanciest of places, but their food is always great.

Brian said...

Also worth a try: the pizza at Frisco Tap House. They have a huge pizza oven and crank out some interesting pizzas.

James said...

I will probably catch hell for this but as someone who once worked there I can say once you learn the massive amount of topping choices they have and baking styles and stuff you can get some amazing pizza from the Dominos in Hickory Ridge Village center. Best suggestion is print off a toppings list online and then order it in store that way the people there can help you get the cheese blends and stuff right. Once I started doing that I never had a pizza I didn't love to try again or share with friends many of whom couldn't believe it was domino's. Another place that makes a good pizza is Royal Pizza on Snowden River pkwy next to TCBY. Good toppings, cheese, and sauce but the best thing there is probably the wings and Italian Cold Cut (they use real spiral cut ham).

P90 Noir said...

I'll give a second vote for Peking Chef in Hickory Ridge.

And I agree that service and quality both dropped off Jesse Wong's. The same can be said for Hunan Manor (and that's without consideration of their numerous health code violations).

For pizza, we do Trattoria most often because it's right around the corner. They would be my favorite if they used better cheese and offered a true pizza margherita. As is, Facci is my favorite in the county.

Both Facci and Coal Fire can be inconsistent, but that's to be expected with a brick oven and fresh dough made from scratch by a human.

Ledo's is good once or twice a year. I love their sauce and the crust is interesting, but the cheese blend is always a little greasy.

Stewart Bushman said...

For Neapolitan-style pizza, Facci can't be beat, but for NY-style, I love Mamma Lucia's. Their straight white pizza is like garlic cheese bread from heaven above.

kam said...

I have never tried the pizza at the 108/Snowden Pasta Blitz despite living fairly close by. I think it's because I'm usually eating there by myself and thus wouldn't be ordering a whole pizza. Are the pre-made slices good?


travelinsnorkel said...

I get takeout from Hunan Legend about once a week. They are consistant and everything is always as expected. It isn't anything fancy, but the staff is friendly, you can use the online 10% off coupon and I love their crab wontons, chicken szechuan, Chicken Egg Foo Young, and their Beef with Broccoli.
For pizza, Trattoria's has the closest NY style pizza I've found in the area. I also enjoy the pizza and really all of the food at Facci's.

HowChow said...

No one is catching hell around here for liking a chain! ;-)

I like Bertucci's pizza. I don't write about chains much because I figure people know about them. But I have posted about Longhorn's ribs. I love hearing from James or anyone else about the good stuff at places that you might not expect from the outside.

moontoad said...

I am late to the party, but Red Pearl's dim sum has gone down in quality by a massive amount.

They also don't understand relay calls, and threatened to send the police on me for trying to order food from them. Which is breaking federal law, but hey, who cares about that, you know. The law was about refusing relay calls, not about sending the cops on me for doing it. I wish they had, it would have been their issue, not mine. They also tried switching the phone over to the fax line to get me to stop calling.

About relay calls: It can sometimes initially take many calls for someone to actually listen and understand what a relay call is, which is why I will call several times at first. I know it's annoying, it drives me crazy, but there are so many deaf people here that there's an active county wide group for them. This stuff shouldn't be an issue, but it is.

I'm not bothering with them anymore. It's not worth it, when every other place I've called here for food delivery has been awesome (including Royal Pizza) with relay calls. I am disabled and can't drive, so if I don't feel like cooking I have one option, and that is to order out. Hunan Legend is very good with that, and I presume these delivery people like my 6 buck tips.

Robert Treat said...

For those looking for good dim sum, check out Asian Court on Rte. 40. I believe HowChow did a post on it, but regardless, it might be the top Dim Sum place in the area at this point.

@GwynethJones - The Daring Librarian said...

Like Courtney, I also adore Mandarin House in Laurel off Guilford & All Saints Road. Notable there is the BEST I've found Cashew Chicken. If only they delivered!

Pub Dog pizza is another brilliant spot for unusually created delicious pizza. The spinach pizza features garlic and bacon and the stinking rose is a celebration of garlic! Vampires beware! Again, if only they delivered!

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