There are so many restaurants so close together in the Federal Hill area, it’s hard to decide how to approach them. I suppose the most logical manner is to continue where we left off last time, which was at Grilled Cheese & Co, near the corner of Light and Cross Street. Head to that corner and take a right. The Cross Street Market, established in 1846 and part of the oldest public market system in the country, will be on your left. The current nearly-29,000-square-foot building dates back to 1952 and is in serious need of overhaul. The plans to do just that started in 2016, but this year those plans seem to be in flux. There are liquor license issues, for one thing, as the many neighborhood residents don’t want the market to be a giant drunken party all the time, yet it’s clear that some vendors would benefit from being able to sell alcohol. Also, existing merchants don’t want to have to close for 10 months during renovations. The last official word regarding the status of the market came out in March. Currently (as of August 2017), the place is quiet and a bit depressing. But hopefully, if you’re reading this in 2018 or beyond, work has been completed and there are new and delicious vendors inhabiting the stalls of Cross Street Market.
There are, however, plenty of restaurants on Cross Street on both sides of the market. On the south side, there are Abbey Burger Bistro and No Way Jose Cafe, each flanking a tiny alley-like street called Marshall Street. Abbey is two stories of burger heaven, and not just any kind of burger, either. Abbey’s specialty is creating burgers from various kinds of meat, some completely odd, but all completely delicious. When I say odd, I mean camel. That’s odd, right?
Besides the unusual-protein special burger of the day, there are also the much more familiar beef, turkey, lamb, and black bean burgers. Go check out the menu – I dare you not to drool over the descriptions of items like the fried green tomato vegetarian “burger” (sliced and fried green tomatoes, marinara, provolone,lettuce, chili pepper aioli) and the spicy Korean duck burger (gochujang spiced duck, sesame mayo, kimchi, cucumber, spring onion salad). They also have a build-your-own mac and cheese, fried pickles, alligator “bites,” and tater tots smothered in crab dip and cheese.
Hold on…I gotta go get lunch.
Ok, back with my burger. Now where was I? Oh yeah, across from Abbey is No Way Jose Cafe. I’ve been going to this place for decades for straightforward Tex-Mex food like fajitas and taco salads. Back out on Cross Street, there’s Ryleigh’s Oyster, which not-surprisingly specializes in the briny bivalves mentioned in its name, serving them roasted, stewed, fried, raw, you name it. Ryleigh’s is also a member of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources’ True Blue program, so all of their crab products are made with the very best stuff: crab fished from Maryland waters.. Though all callinectes sapidus are tasty, the variable temperature conditions in the Chesapeake Bay create crabs that are fattier and more flavorful than their brethren from other locales. If you don’t believe me, try them for yourself!
A bit further down the block is Spoons Cafe and Coffee Roasters, which serves breakfast/brunch and lunch as well as super-fresh, small-batch-roasted coffee. In addition to familiar items like bacon and eggs and buttermilk pancakes, they have more unusual breakfast choices like a benedict made with deep fried risotto cakes, and a fried chicken, bacon, and egg sandwich on a buttermilk biscuit topped with sausage gravy that they call The Beast. If you’re feeling more virtuous, they also have a dairy-free chia seed pudding with bananas and bee pollen.
Next door to Spoons is Pub Dog. From the outside, it looks like your typical place to order nachos and wings and beer (oh my!), but Pub Dog is actually a pizza parlor. Pies come in a 10” thin crust personal size, and can be made gluten-free. There are 20+ combinations of toppings, most with cute dog-themed names like the Alaskan Husky (a 3-cheese white pizza with basil) and the Baja Chihuahua (chipotle sauce, lime-marinated chicken, veggies). If you can’t make up your mind, order two pizzas in any flavor and have them sandwiched together to make a “Smash Dog.” Think of it as a giant round calzone and it makes more sense. Sorta.
Next door to that is the Crossbar, a large biergarten-style establishment that took over four vacant buildings and took more than four years to get built. As I’ve mentioned before, Federal Hill is a largely residential area, despite the preponderance of bars and restaurants. Local neighborhood associations weren’t too keen on the idea of a potentially rowdy mega-bar opening so close to their homes, so Crossbar’s owners (including Brian McComas, who owns Ryleigh’s down the block) compromised on the facility’s capacity and agreed to sell as much food as beer. So while the theme of Crossbar is German beer, beer, and more beer, including drafts served in two-liter boot-shaped glasses, there is also plenty of German-style food to accompany the suds. Though the residents of predominantly-German city neighborhoods have long ago moved out to the suburbs, Baltimore still loves its sour beef and dumplings. Crossbar has them, as well as a vegetarian version that replaces the meat with kale. The rest of the menu is wurst-heavy, but if there’s one thing that Germany has taught us is that beer goes great with a sausage on a bun.
There are restaurants on the other side of the market, too, with pizza as a recurring theme among a few of them. There’s a Pizza Boli’s and a place called Ultimate Pizza, but if you want a real wood-fired ‘za, then go to Social Pub and Pie. A casual joint with a dozen+ specialty pies, and paninis, salads, and a few apps, Social also has an extra-long happy hour (5-10pm!) with super inexpensive food and drink specials. Additional casual fare can be found at the Korean-Mex hybrid Pop Tacos, and at the Local Fry. The Local Fry specializes in something I like to think of as “global poutine:” freshly cut french fries topped with all manner of deliciousness. The signature fries are topped with taco beef, a house special sauce, shredded cheese and scallions and is one of my favorites, but I also l also enjoy the banh mi fries that include pickled daikon and carrots, cukes, cilantro, and your choice of protein, drizzled with Kewpie mayo. They also make a banh mi sandwich, and offer a handful of other items like rice bowls and yummy chicken wings in close to 20 varieties. Pretty much everything is made fresh in-house (except for things like the Kewpie mayo, naturally) from scratch. While beer would go with everything at the Local Fry, you have to BYO.
Finally on the south side of the market we have Bookmaker’s Cocktail Club. As per the name, they have a great bar program along with a fairly brief but regularly-changing menu of small plates. Currently it boasts items like the new-classic watermelon salad with goat cheese, mint, and balsamic, avocado toast on a buttered baguette with microgreens, smoked ribs with a bourbon peach bbq sauce, and shrimp and grits, among others. There’s also a regular burger and a short rib french dip sandwich. Cocktails are fairly inventive, such as The Sun No Longer Rises made with mezcal, ancho chili liqueur, creme de cacao, mole bitters, and an amer (a French amaro) called china-china, and the Bananagram with Jamaican black rum, banana-cilantro cordial, and fresh lime, topped with prosecco. There’s also a small selection of wine and beer if you’re not into cocktails. (Which begs the question: why did you walk into a place called a Cocktail Club in the first place?)
There’s plenty more to eat in Fed Hill. We’ll pick up next time with some of the restaurants on Charles Street.
Minxeats Baltimore food blogger and Co-author of the new book, Maryland’s Chesapeake: How the Bay and its Bounty Shaped a Cuisine, plus Food Lovers’ Guide to Baltimore, and Baltimore Chef’s Table.
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