While the largest concentration of restaurants in the neighborhood known as Federal Hill is within a few blocks of Federal Hill itself, there are still plenty more in the surrounding area, which will be explored in upcoming posts. We’ll start today on Charles Street, just west of Cross Street Market, where there are several restaurants of note. Head north, that is, toward the Inner Harbor, and there’s the option of eating: classic pub grub at MaGerk’s; delicious cupcakes at Midnite Confections; sigara borek, kebaps, and sarma at OttO Turkish Cuisine; fresh salmon and spicy tuna rolls at Brothers Sushi; and halloumi, tabbouleh, and kibbeh at Zaatar Mediterranean Cuisine. If you’re more in the mood for magic than a meal, stop into Illusions Magic Bar & Lounge to see Spencer Horsman or one of the other resident illusionists make the impossible seem possible. All of that can be found on the 1000 block of South Charles Street.
But wait – there’s more! On the other side of the same block, Mi & Yu is a fine place to enjoy a big bowl of somewhat unconventional ramen. Pick a noodle (ramen, udon, or pho) and a broth (miso, filipino adobo duck, spicy sambal duck, or spicy “kimchi style”) and add a protein (buttermilk brined fried chicken, herbed meatballs, fried thai curry shrimp, roast duck carnitas, 5 spiced bbq pork belly, soy-miso beef short ribs, or tofu). I can’t imagine any combination of the above ingredients, especially in the hands of chef Edward Kim, would be anything short of stellar. Not in the mood for soup? All of the proteins can be had in a soft steamed bun, or bao, as a sandwich, with a side of duck fat or rosemary-garlic fries. Yes, please! Another branch of Mi & Yu is slated to open up in Hampden later this year–closer to my neck of the woods–and I couldn’t be more excited.
Also on that side of the street is Nobles, a casual cocktails-and-pub grub kinda place, and Fat Larry’s, a haven for cheesesteak lovers. Turn right onto Cross Street and check out SoBo Cafe. This bright restaurant in two classic Baltimore rowhomes serves up from-scratch fare with an International flair. (Hey! I’m a poet!) I make a point never to miss out on ordering whatever amazing fruit or vegetable soup they have on offer. Cold or hot, they are always inventive and flavorful; I still dream about the chilled tomatillo soup I ate there a couple years back. So. Good. They’re famous for their chicken pot pie, but I’m partial to their Korean chicken fried steak with kimchi collard greens, soy-garlic mashed potatoes, ssamjang gravy. Yes, it’s spicy, as it should be. SoBo Cafe also offers vegan, vegetarian, and gluten-free items, and a fabulous weekend brunch.
Walk back to Charles Street and take a right to head south. Matsuri, on the corner of Cross and Charles, has been around for quite a long time–I definitely enjoyed some meals there in the 90s. Matsuri serves not only sushi but also Japanese curry dishes, sauteed noodles and noodle soups, and several don dishes (protein over rice). Down the block a little bit is Mother’s Federal Hill Grille, one of the best places to watch the Baltimore Ravens play outside of M&T Bank Stadium. $30 gets you tailgate heaven, with unlimited bloody marys, crushes, and beers, plus one food item, on their Purple Patio. When it’s not game day, Mother’s serves a voluminous menu of pub grub, local specialties (crab cakes and crab on just about anything you can think of), lots of burgers, entree salads, and items with a touch of New Orleans in them (po’ boys, jambalaya). Breakfast is served on the weekends, too.
On that same block are competing BBQ joints. HarborQue specializes in Carolina-style ‘que, marinating their meats in vinegar and spices before slow cooking them over hickory wood. The pulled pork there is super tender, as it should be after being cooked for 14 hours, and sauced Eastern North Carolina style with apple cider vinegar, a bit of brown sugar, and some heat. Their brisket, too, is cooked for many hours, making it tender and succulent. Both proteins are available in sandwich format, or as part of a meat platter or by the pound. HarborQue also offers beef, turkey, and ham, pit-roasted over hickory, a form of BBQ that’s somewhat more familiar to the locals. Here in Maryland, when we hear “pit beef,” we think of thinly sliced meat piled high on a roll with raw onions and horseradish. The beef, generally from the top or bottom round, is cooked directly over a hot charcoal-fueled fire, not slow-roasted, so while it might seem similar to Carolina pit-roasted beef, it’s not. But we’re not snobs and are very happy to eat any style of BBQ put in front of us, be it from Carolina…
…or in the case of Wayward Smokehouse, a few doors away, from Texas. Their style of bbq has an emphasis on brisket, which the restaurant smokes for 14 hours over various woods. At Wayward, that brisket pops up in a sandwich, on mac and cheese, on “cheesesteak” fries, at brunch on a version of eggs Benedict, and even on a “shingle.” As I write this, I’m looking at that brunch menu online and wishing desperately that it was a Sunday and not a Tuesday and I could get the Peaches n’ Cream French Toast with smoked peach chutney and bourbon whipped cream. Or the Harvest Chicken salad, which has candied pumpkin seeds, whiskey poached pears, goat cheese, and grilled chicken in a smoked cranberry vinaigrette over mesclun. But on a Tuesday I can settle for the Banditos Mexi Skillet, which is a mess o’ fries topped with carnitas and queso from Banditos across the street, plus ground beef, habanero cream, and pico de gallo.
If you’re wondering how food from Banditos comes into play, they are a sister restaurant to Wayward Smokehouse. Tacos are their strong suit, made with fillings both traditional (the aforementioned carnitas, al pastor, chorizo), and not so traditional (crispy pork belly, blackened shrimp with andouille sausage, tempura avocado). They also have other favorites like burritos and nachos, but give me the crab dip with corn and poblano peppers and the Quesadilla Marina with chihuahua cheese, tempura shrimp, crab salad, and cilantro slaw. Yum.
A third related restaurant is slated to open in September (and may be open as you read this). 101 Deli Bar will be another meat-centric joint specializing in house-cured goodies like corned beef and pastrami, and charcuterie including mortadella, soppressata, and chorizo. Sorry, vegans. 🙁
There are two more places I want to mention before ending this week’s tour. In the next block are &pizza and Ropewalk Tavern. The former is part of a build-your-own pizza chain that uses local produce, no high-fructose corn syrup, and pays its workers a living wage. There are several pizza places in the immediate vicinity, but if you want to feel like you’re giving back to the local community when you eat out, &pizza might be the place for you.
Ropewalk Tavern is named for Ropewalk Lane, the side street next to the tavern, once home to the rope makers of Baltimore’s shipbuilding industry. There was a tavern on site too, back in the days before Prohibition, but I’m guessing it was nothing like the current establishment. Today, Ropewalk offers 155 different beers to accompany modern-day tavern fare like crab cakes, slow braised short ribs, and grilled salmon. Starters are seafood-forward, like the crab cake stuffed egg rolls, crispy “Bada Bing” shrimp tossed in a creamy sweet and spicy sauce, and pan fried crawfish. There are also nachos and wings, tacos and po’ boys, and all manner of items that taste great with beer.
Next time we’ll need some good walking shoes because we’ll be meandering quite a bit as the restaurants pop up fewer and farther between.
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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