I’m somewhat jealous of the folks who live in Hampden. Not that the homes there are particularly spectacular; most are small and all are packed together with not nearly enough parking spaces to go around. What makes Hampden great is that there’s always something going on, from Summer’s HONFest, to Hampdenfest in the Fall, to the “Miracle on 34th Street,” a holiday spectacle that has become an annual tradition for many Baltimore area folks. The neighbors on the 700 block of 34th Street start festooning their homes with decorations before Thanksgiving in preparation for the hordes that flock to see the lights. Some even climb onto residents’ porches to get a better view of the holidaypalooza, which includes trees made of hubcaps and a sculpture of Santa with his sleigh pulled by….crabs. All year ‘round folks can dine in Hampden’s almost ridiculous number of good restaurants and shop to their heart’s content. It’s amazing that the locals ever leave the neighborhood–I am not even remotely exaggerating.
The main thoroughfare of Hampden is 36th Street, also called the Avenue, though shops and eateries snake down the side streets as well. We’ll start our eating tour on the east side of the neighborhood, on Chestnut Street, near Wyman Park at the back of the campus of Johns Hopkins University. On the corner of 34th and Chestnut, just past the block of Christmas craziness, is Rocket to Venus. The name refers to an actual rocket, built by three Hampden residents, destined to make the trip from Earth to Venus. In 1928. On 50 gallons of gasoline. The rocket didn’t even make it off the ground, but it’s the thought that counts, right? The namesake restaurant doesn’t claim to transport anyone into outer space, but it boasts a menu that is plenty diverse, featuring burgers and other sandwiches like pork belly bao and banh mi. Pierogi, fried pickles, and meatloaf, too.
On the other side of 34th, a couple doors in from the corner, is Play Cafe. This kid-friendly restaurant is open from 9 – 3:30 every day and offers simple breakfast foods and sandwiches, plus snacks for the little ones. Children are encouraged to play–gently–while parents sip a latte or two. Sadly, they don’t offer alcohol, which I think would be a must-have when kids are around…. Wander up to the next block to find Harmony Bakery, purveyors of gluten free vegan donuts and other baked goods, plus a small selection of salads, soups, and items like vegan quiche and quinoa burgers.
Walk another block north to find the brand-spanking-new Foraged, which bills itself as a “hyper-seasonal” eatery. Chef/owner Chris Amendola spends as much time as he can in the forest personally sourcing ingredients, but don’t expect the menu to be completely mushroom-happy. There are plenty of local and seasonal farmers’ market goodies to round things out, like pork belly and sunchokes, catfish and oysters. I personally haven’t eaten there yet, but Foraged is on my bucket list for 2018.
There are several more eateries in the next block. On the west side there’s Full Circle Artisan Palace, which if you can’t tell by the name is a donut shop. You can definitely tell by looking at the storefront, however, as there’s a giant pink Homer Simpson-style donut attached to the front wall. Baltimore seems positively crazy for donuts, so most places sell out early in the day; I’m sure Full Circle is no different. There’s no web site right now, so you have to take your chances. If they’re not open, you can satisfy your craving for baked goods at Sweet Side Cafe, across the street. They offer donuts and cannolis, even donut-cannoli hybrids they call doughnolli, plus cookies, macarons, cupcakes, and soft serve ice cream. If you want something savory as well, they can hook you up with sandwiches and salads, but you know you’re really in it for the sugar rush.
If it’s pizza you’re craving, step into Paulie Gee’s. How Baltimore got lucky enough to end up with a branch of Paul Giannone’s Brooklyn pizzeria is beyond me, but I’m grateful. The Baltimore shop is actually owned by local Kelly Beckham, perhaps better known as Pizzablogger. His favorite kind of pizza is Neapolitan style, and that’s what he’s slinging in the former Hampden Republican Club, along with a couple of nice salads. You want fries with that? Then go elsewhere. All you need with one of these pies is a beer or any of the many other libations available from the full bar located behind the spacious dining room. Paulie Gee’s pies are about 12” in diameter, with a leopard-spotted crust owing to the ripping 900°F temperature of their wood-fired ovens. Toppings range from the sublime to the sublime. My personal fave is the Stinger Bell, with smoked mozzarella, thinly sliced lemon, lemon bitters, fresh basil, and a drizzle of Mike’s Hot Honey. It’s the epitome of subtle, with light smoke, a bit of tartness, and a hint of sweet heat. If you’re a fan of “Hawaiian” pie, try Outside Log Cabins for a more refined version of the genre. The Berkshire guanciale, pickled pineapple, and smoked mozzarella will definitely not transport you to a tropical island, which pizza should never do anyway. Paulie Gee’s has an impressive dozen or so vegan pies on the menu, too, and they’re tasty enough for even the strictest carnivore, like me.
More Italian food can be found at Grano Emporio, located on the other side of Sweet Side. The menu there is short and sweet, with a dozen or so apps and a generous handful of entrees like a fine classic lasagna Bolognese, mushroom ravioli, and linguine with mussels. Get a plate of meatballs, too. It’s all good.
Across 36th Street, but still on Chestnut, is Dylan’s Oyster Cellar. They specialize in the briny bivalves, serving them raw, roasted, and fried. Clams are available raw or steamed, and in the form of delectable fried whole bellies as well. Other stuff too, even non-seafood items for those folks who go into a place touting oysters but expect a cheeseburger.
Finally, in a last-but-not-least sort of way, there’s the Charmery. Located kitty-corner from Dylan’s, this little ice cream shop might be my favorite place in all of Hampden. Why? Three words for you: Old Bay Caramel. Yes, I’m a Baltimore native and we stereotypically put Old Bay Seasoning on everything. Even ice cream. Now, I’ve had Old Bay ice cream in the past that simply did not work. But at the Charmery, they could probably make anchovy ice cream that people would wait in line to eat. Over the relatively few years of their existence, the Charmery has produced hundreds of ice cream flavors including esoteric ingredients like wasabi peas, paw-paw, and cheddar cheese popcorn, with names like “Cold Pizza” and “Bagels and Cream Cheese.” I’d be willing to try any of them, but I always default to Old Bay Caramel. Yes, it does taste like Old Bay, and occasionally I will find celery seeds stuck in my teeth after eating it, but that only serves to remind me what a freaking great bowl of frozen cream and eggs that I had earlier in the day. They’re opening a second location in Towson this year which makes me almost unreasonably excited.
There’s plenty more in Hampden once we round the corner onto 36th Street, but you’ll just have to wait for it. Until next time….
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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