Beefy Guys, Beefy Food
Ashland Café Serves Up Big Dishes For Big Appetites
The world would be a better place if there were more restaurants like the Ashland Café. Not that we Americans need any more gravy fries in our ever more inactive and rotund lives, but inexpensive local restaurants with marvelous home cooking seem an increasingly endangered species. The Ashland has been a favorite of mine for several years, and the gravy and the cheapness are only part of the reason.
Open only for breakfast and lunch, the Ashland attracts a dedicated clientele of Cockeysville-area workers, blue- and white-collar, who fill the place before 9 a.m. and again at noon; otherwise, it's very quiet. The café is decorated in a B&O Railroad motif, complete with a model train endlessly circling the dining room on a track suspended from the ceiling. Paper place mats advertise local businesses such as Elmo and Elly-Fant (professional party clowns) and Frisky's Wildlife Sanctuary. There's little time for contemplating the ads, though--no matter when you visit, bustling, efficient waitresses whisk your food to the table in minutes, and attentive buspersons top your drink off with endless free refills. They even remember what you're drinking. It's that kind of place.
By far, the most amazing deal is the two-piece fried chicken dinner ($3.99): your choice of either breast-and-wing or thigh-and-leg combinations of outstandingly crisp and juicy chicken, plus a generous mound of french fries, coleslaw, and roll. Or--the menu declares "substitutions on above vegetables gladly made"--you can do like I do and swap for the Western fries, hefty, tender battered potato wedges with a nice spice coating. The three-piece dinner is just a buck more, but the two-piece is already such a mountain of food I sincerely hope whoever orders it has plans to plow the back 40 after lunch. A lot of the beefy guys who eat at the Ashland appear ready to go do just that, just as soon as they play one more game of Keno.
Everything I've ever eaten at the Ashland has been well made, generous, and fresh. I'm especially fond of the made-from-scratch eggplant parmesan (served with spaghetti, $7.75) and the mountainous meat lasagna ($7.79)--both featuring the house's zesty, bright-flavored marinara sauce and served with a garden salad and garlic bread. Some part of either of these ample-portioned pastas is nigh guaranteed to go home with you in a Styrofoam box.
If the specials menu offers sour beef and dumplings ($6.25), order it. This is one of the best versions around: beef that falls to shreds at the touch of a fork and substantial (but not too heavy) dumplings, bathed in a sprightly sweet/sour gravy redolent of gingersnaps. Homemade soup of the day is also a winner (prices vary); simple but flavorful offerings range from soothing chicken noodle to savory, spinach-packed tomato Florentine and stand-up-your-spoon split-pea.
Since the place is Greek-owned, the souvlaki ($7.50) and spinach pie ($6.50) are also good choices, but my favorite from the "Greek Specialties" section of the menu is the lamb gyro platter ($7.25). It's served unlike any gyro I've ever seen before: strips of flavorfully spiced meat, rather than being piled with fixings and wrapped in a soft blanket of pita, arrive piled atop taut triangles of buttery grilled pita. Tomato and tzatziki (cucumber-yogurt) sauce accompany the Ashland's assemble-it-yourself approach to gyro eating, which is messy and drippy and delicious. Any of these entrées come with a small Greek salad, loaded with olives and salty feta and dressed with oregano-laced vinaigrette.
If you arrive when things are busy, you'll probably log some time contemplating the dessert case while waiting for a table or booth to open up. Best bets are the baklava ($2.25) and rice pudding ($1.55), a creamy, aromatic concoction studded with golden raisins. There's an array of the Ashland's own mile-high meringue and cream pies ($1.99), also very worthy of consideration. All are available to go, in case the Ashland's mighty portions have temporarily numbed any dessert desires.
Breakfast at the Ashland Café consists, in large part, of well-prepared basic diner fare, but there are some nice upgrades too. Like fresh-squeezed orange juice ($3.25), cheese blintzes with strawberries and sour cream ($4.99), and--my particular favorite--the Ashland's own version of pigs in a blanket: fat sausage links rolled up inside buttermilk pancakes and served with maple syrup ($5.45). Sooooo-EEEE! Sage-spiked country sausage gravy, served over hefty homemade biscuits with a side of home-fried potatoes ($5.25) is heart-stoppingly good.
Finally, in keeping with Dish's budding minitrend of spotting minor local celebrities in restaurants, this week's visit to the Ashland garnered a glimpse of former U.S. Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, in the middle of the lunch rush, swooping down on a just-vacated booth.
Over in the corner booth: firstname.lastname@example.org.