North and Northeast
Belvedere Square Market, 529 E. Belvedere Ave., (410) 323-2396, www.atwaters.biz, $
Why We Go: Meticulously selected local ingredients and superior fresh-baked breads; a small changes-daily menu of soups, salads, and sandwiches that go gourmet without leaving hearty appeal behind; and no-nonsense atmosphere and price points.
What We Eat: It isn't always available, but the thick, rich gumbo is a sure bet.
What We'd Change: We know it's artisanal and “slow food” and all that, and we know that good things come to those who wait. We just wish we didn't have to wait as long as we do on occasion.
438 E. Belvedere Ave., (410) 532-0022, www.cafezen.com, $-$$
Why We Go: Zen doesn't look like most Chinese restaurants, and the spirit of the bright, clean, somewhat modernized dècor carries over to the food. The usual brown glop is pushed aside for more robust and distinct flavors, less gooey sauces, and more healthy preparations.
What We Eat: Cafè Zen's mild, abundant takes on curry have fueled many a family meal, but most often we go for its simple spinach or broccoli in garlic sauce. Good and good for you.
What We'd Change: Could at least one Chinese restaurant we can get a little excited about in this town deliver?
Belvedere Square, 600 E. Belvedere Ave., (410) 464-1000, www.rdirishpub.com, $-$$$
Why We Go: 'Cause sometimes you want something lamby and some form of potatoes and a pint in surroundings where you don't feel like you're hanging in a bar in the middle of the day. This Belvedere Square pub maybe goes overboard a bit with the theme-parky Irishness, but the hospitality is genuine and its menu shows a bit of ambition that sometimes fulfills itself on the plate.
What We Eat: We mentioned ambition, we know, but core grub such as fish and chips and shepherd's pie fills the bill consistently.
What We'd Change: We'd reconsider those big, boxy, occasionally mushy fries, maybe go with something thinner and crispier. Potatoes are supposed to be part of the appeal, after all.
5857 York Road, (410) 435-1200, $-$$
Why We Go: A pleasant, casual restaurant whose extensive menu includes a solid selection of Vietnamese faves.
What We Eat: We start with the luscious basil mussels and the beef in grape leaves, and move on to the omelet-sized Vietnamese crepe.
What We'd Change: We can never get enough pho, and Saigon Remembered's menu sorely lacks in that department.
5503 York Road, (410) 433-4161, $
Why We Go: We don't; we call and get our food delivered.
What We Eat: Wings, but not buffalo-style or with teriyaki or any other fancy topping. The wings here are juicy, golden, and expertly dusted with seasoned salt. Also, the chicken cheese steak sub is made with real chicken, not those flattened-out, pale Steak-um things that a lot of other places use--just watch out for the bones.
What We'd Change: We'd change their opinion of us. We once called in an order and slept through the delivery guy's door knocking. Now they think we pranked them and won't take our calls anymore. Damn you, caller ID.
5921 York Road, (410) 532-7542, $
Why We Go: Because we've been going there for years, and so have our friends. The beer is cold, and Monday night is Italian night.
What We Eat: Wednesday and Sunday half-price burger nights always work. And the seafood pub grub, including fresh fish, handmade crab cakes, and steamed oysters, is as good as any around.
What We'd Change: The fact that all the college kids are hip to the half-priced burger nights. Go on an off afternoon if you want some elbow room.
Belvedere Square, 510 E. Belvedere Ave., (443) 728-9001, www.tasterestaurant.biz,
Why We Go: With those big stone walls, we feel like we're in a Twin Peaks theme bar, but, really, it's because Ann Nault turned out to be a smart, focused chef whose larder is stocked with prime beef and seafood.
What We Eat: The miso- and herb-marinated wild salmon on a plank, drizzled with a wasabi cream sauce, or the rum-soaked rack of lamb, because we like Taste best when Nault goes just far enough with already good food.
What We'd Change: The service can be of the “Hi, Guys!” ilk, which clashes with the silky-smooth dècor and carefully presented plates.
5916 York Road, (410) 323-3368, $-$$
Why We Go: It's not rocket science, but Cafè Zen figured out that good fresh ingredients are what elevates Chinese food. At Zen West, Zen owners apply the same formula to Tex-Mex, with the same results--good quality cheap eats.
What We Eat: With something called “Giant Jason's Belly Buster Burrito” on the menu, it's tough to get anything else. It's not as big as all that.
What We'd Change: With the associations of the name, we were expecting a little more Zen with our West--kind of like Caine in Kung Fu--but it's pretty straight-down-the-line cowboy food.
5713 Harford Road, (410) 444-6422, www.bigbadwolfbarbeque.com, $
Why We Go: Barbecue is our lifeblood, that's why, and Big Bad Wolf's makes 'cue that makes our mouths water.
What We Eat: The best thing here is the chicken, whether barbecued or served Eastern Shore style. The pulled pork with vinegar sauce isn't going to make you forget North Carolina, but it'll do in a pinch.
What We'd Change: Some of BBW's sauces are sweeter than they should be--punch 'em up a bit--and its ribs really need an overhaul.
1407 E. Cold Spring Lane, (410) 464-2100, $
Why We Go: Imagine if New York Fried Chicken served breakfast. That, and the only other place to get a sandwich within a six-block radius is 7-Eleven.
What We Eat: For $3.60, the Brass Hen will hook you up with an eight-inch cheese steak sub with all the trimmings (grilled onions, lettuce, tomato, hots) then drape two fried eggs on top of all that. And that's on the breakfast menu, people.
What We'd Change: We'd like the place to be jazzed up a bit--it looks closed even when it's open--and we could use a bigger window to order through. They can barely hear us through that bulletproof glass.
D341 Harford Road, (410) 254-2376, www.thechameleoncafe.com, $$-$$$
Why We Go: The delicious, imaginative menu, tasteful and useful wine list, and casual but sophisticated ambiance.
What We Eat: Anything off the seasonal summer Maryland menu, or however chef Jeff Smith is preparing duck that evening.
What We'd Change: The main dining room's acoustics, which can feel downright intrusive and claustrophobic even when conversation is at a modest, casual volume.
6620 Harford Road, (410) 426-3244, $
Why We Go: Dependably quick and fresh-tasting Thai carry-out.
What We Eat: A variety of those served-warm Thai salads and the supergenius Chokchai wings, in which crabmeat is somehow stuffed inside a delicately fried chicken wing.
What We'd Change: Spruce up the waiting area-cum-“dining room”--a mere two or three tables, tops--into something that doesn't feel like a package-goods store where you might get mugged.
6000 Harford Road, (410) 426-3100, www.edelweissbakery.com, $
Why We Go: For the cheap breakfasts, German pastries, and sauerbraten specials. We also go in the hope that we'll catch a little impromptu show from a neighborhood resident who stops by to entertain the lunch crowd with German accordion tunes.
What We Eat: The sauerbraten, red cabbage, and dumplings, served as a lunch special on Thursdays.
What We'd Change: The fact that the sauerbraten is only served on Thursdays.
k506 Harford Road, (410) 444-4220; 714 York Road, Towson, (410) 494-0061; www.losamigosbaltimore.com, $-$$
Why We Go: The Hamilton Los Amigos features, like most Mexican restaurants, a long list of combo platters of fajitas, tacos, burritos, etc. But it's also got some Peruvian specialties. The Dos, up in Towson, pioneered Latino rotisserie chicken in the Baltimore area, and it's still some of the best in town. Both locations are among the friendliest places you'll ever eat at: “Hello, amigos!”
What We Eat: Stick to those Peruvian specialties--lomo saltado, carnitas, ceviche--in Hamilton and you'll do fine. At the Dos, it's that moist, grease-free chicken all the way, and the succulent fried yucca.
What We'd Change: Up with Peru, down with combo platters!
Northwood Shopping Center, 1518 Havenwood Road, (410) 889-2055, $
Why We Go: Because no matter how many cool eclectic spots open up around town, we can't stop ourselves from getting in on a nice chicken box with potato wedges every now and then.
What We Eat: The fried chicken and potato wedges, the stuffed sub sandwiches, and the half and half (half lemonade, half iced tea), which is enormous and sugary enough to crack a tooth.
What We'd Change: We'd rather not have to wait in line behind a junkie who wants us to buy him lunch in exchange for a dry-cleaning bag wrapped around a pair of red corduroys that he “found.”
812 Park Ave.
Baltimore, MD 21201