Looking for Late-Night Grub on the Lean Streets of Baltimore
I usually work days, digging through shady financial records and staking out unfaithful city employees. This would be a challenge. I asked a few cops leaving a pizza joint in midtown where the best grub is, third shift. “How do I know,” one shrugged. “That’s past my bedtime.”
Mine, too. But I had a job to do, so I started investigating where people alight in this dark world so devoid of proper 24-hour chrome diners the old-fashioned way, with a tank full of gas and a gut full of coffee. In time I would learn the weird truth: kimchi emporia; rooms full of toys and mannequins; a sushi place with a DJ and a cover charge.
All was relatively quiet at midnight at the old Remington standby, the Paper Moon Diner (227 W. 29th St.,  889-4444). A person could walk in without waiting in line, as is the usual fate after 2 a.m. Still, the staff inside was busy enough that I sat at the counter a few minutes before anyone noticed me.
Paper Moon’s mannequin-and-toy décor was in full flare, its whimsically creepy vibe meshing with customers’ sharpened hairstyles and arched attitudes. A guy on the far end of the Lucite counter told his friend of the “big red sign” that says CHRISTIAN SOLDIERS GUNS AND AMMO, presumably above a Baltimore gun shop. “I gotta get a picture of that and send it to Letterman,” the dude enthused. At the other end of the counter a young man in his mid 20s, watch cap pulled down to the tops of impressive muttonchops, strode in and grabbed a menu before perching on his favorite stool. A waitress greeted him by name.
Kids in their 20s with stylish tattoos milled in and out, jumping past the leaf-attired female mannequin on their way down the stairs. The waitstaff whizzed through the crowd like pinballs. The cooks, two hours into their shift, spun like electrons ’round an atom’s nucleus.
Suddenly, I saw a girl, peeking through the square opening that leads back into the dishwashing area. One glance into her deep brown eyes told me she already knew all my secret wishes, and found them amusing if not utterly contemptible. Her olive skin glistened in the steam, which further curled the tsunami of dark hair falling past her shoulder. She was wearing a moth-eaten yellow T-shirt wrapped like a sari over tight jeans and boots, and she moved like a grass fire, ululating past the counter toward me.
“Cobb salad?” she said. I nodded dumbly as she slid the plate in front of me. The salad went down easy, but I had to compose myself before continuing the investigation at a nearby Korean joint called Nam Kang (2126 Maryland Ave.,  685-6237).
Tucked into the basement at 2126 Maryland Ave., Nam Kang is quiet, well-lit, and as unpretentious as a truck stop on I-80. At 1 a.m. the TV was tuned to Country Music Television, featuring Dolly Parton sobbing on a chat show followed by old-school country music shit kicker Waylon Jennings, looking like a wise man fresh from penitentiary.
The main dining room was nearly empty, but the rear dining room of the tiny restaurant was packed with older folks chatting in what sounded like Korean. The sushi bar closes at 10:30 p.m., but the remaining menu is copious and the server smiled and patiently explained the Korean delicacies.
Soon, the older folks began to filter out and a younger crowd found its way in. A trio of Johns Hopkins students sat down at the next table, the Korean student teaching the Chinese and Ghanaian lads some Korean characters, pointing out the “Nam” and “Kang” on the menu.
“So this is the famous kimchi,” the African guy said as the six-dish automatic appetizer appeared. Their conversation rolled along, an undergraduate learning experience in new culture. Foods were compared, academic ambitions, language. “I thought you worshipped your own gods,” the Chinese lad said to the Ghanaian, who patiently explained the mix of Christian, Muslim, and animism in West Africa. Behind him on the television Waylon Jennings’ face got craggier and craggier.
I repaired to the waterfront as the bars let out at 2 a.m. and found the acrid smell of vomit wafting along the 1600 block of Aliceanna Avenue. The patrons degraded into the usual chorus of spirited “wooo-wooing” as the wheezy echo of wrongly “tuned” engines and screeching tires competed with screeching young women and cabbies’ horns. It was time for coffee, and yet the Blue Moon Café, usually open all night on weekends, was closed, dark, with a help wanted sign in the window.
Truer words were never written.
The Sip and Bite, a late-night stalwart in Canton, was on vacation this week, so I headed back up to midtown to see how the party at Kobe (1023 N. Charles St.,  685-0780) was coming along.
A heavily dreadlocked young couple with multiple tats rolled in with me. The young man made a gyrating show of digging deep into his jean pockets, coming forth with a crumpled $20 bill. “I don’t know why I have to pay $5 just to eat sushi,” he said to the equally dreadlocked doorman.
We passed under the sign that says no drinking or dancing after 2 a.m. I wondered what bad Kevin Bacon movie inspired the absurd dancing prohibition. The music was a dark roast house, an oddly fitting match for the anime flickering on the television behind the sushi bar. Most of the tables were full at 2:30 a.m. as I settled in at the corner of the bar. The sushi chef, a substantial man with Sam Kinnison hair and a copiously sweat-stained smock, produced a California roll in seconds and with a knowing, professional smile.
A man at the end of the bar says he used to cut sushi here, too, in the “old days”—a year or two ago—when the place was packed wall to wall. Over the music he launches into a story of his girlfriend’s BMW, the finest machine ever built, which he helped her buy and repair and that, now that she and he have parted ways, he will no longer be driving. “I got the dog. She got the BMW,” he says, leaving no doubt about who got the better deal.
Raw fish before dawn seems better in theory than practice. Or maybe my old stomach is just more accustomed to the old diner standbys of strong coffee and greasy french fries. So I set back out in search of a greasy spoon, hunting for hours within the city limits before finding success.
Valentino’s (6627 Harford Road, Parkville,  254-4700), up in Hamilton, lacks the chrome and the little jukeboxes. But it’s got the glass case filled with freakishly large cakes, those mountainous chocolate planets lit by a fluorescent sun. The mostly young, bow-tied staff lacks the hound-dog professionalism of the ancient waitresses favored by old dining sleuths like myself, but at least they didn’t give me a heart attack like the waitress/dishwasher at the Paper Moon.
The menu is pure diner: six laminated, faintly greasy pages featuring all the hits, from three-egg omelets to crab cakes. The food comes fast, it’s cheap enough, and nobody has to front here. The place is awash in innocuous pop music and the medium light of a self-consciously “family” restaurant that nonetheless boasts a copiously stocked bar, ouzo included.
No one was drinking at the bar when I rolled in, late in the morning as the sun burned my eyes. It was very, very long after the bars closed, and the church brunch crowd was settling in. Ladies in elaborate hats, talking as loud and unselfconsciously as an addled club kid. One woman launched into a mini sermon, well cadenced and projected from diaphragm, to a table of church mates. Jesus is here for her, she exclaimed, and no one would dare challenge that.
Then another woman at the table testified to her “best fight,” an actual, physical altercation with another woman. The menfolk were holding her back, she recounted, somehow as loudly and as proudly as the Jesus woman two chairs away. “It was,” she concluded, “stupid.”
Not as stupid, I thought to myself, as staying up all night to go to four restaurants. But then I nodded off. It was Sunday, noon: way past my bedtime.
Glory Days (9/19/2007)
New Yellow Bowl Owner Hopes To Bring Back The Pols--Or At Least The Customers
Businessman's Lunch (9/20/2006)
Downtown's White-Collar Workers Are Mum's The Word While Boozing At Break Time
Stung By Honey (9/21/2005)
Viryta Is Hard To Know, Easy To Like
Old Habits (7/28/2010)
Medicalization is the hot new thing in drug treatment. Just like in 1970.
Room for Improvement (7/14/2010)
Celebrated crime control measure actually a flop, former chief reveals
Shelling Out (7/7/2010)
Mortgage broker goes bankrupt, seeks mortgage modification as taxpayers face mounting bailout bills
812 Park Ave.
Baltimore, MD 21201