The Mr. Rogers Diet
When Bo Brooks Crab House (2701 Boston St.,  558-0202) moved from its longtime humble home in Gardenville to its new upscale Canton digs, many local stalwarts abandoned it to the yuppies and tourists. Au contraire, mon frere, say we. Bo's may charge more for crabs than you're going to pay elsewhere in town, but we've never been served a single disappointing crustacean there. The owners have good crab connections and can put extra jumbos on the table when everyone else is shelling out mere larges, even out of season. Plus there's the added pleasure of eating crabs while looking at the water, an amenity few city crab houses can offer. Finally, even if the place is a tad touristy these days, it's always fun to watch the first-timers at the next table tackle their first Old Bay-encrusted beauty.
For strictly local flavor, in both Chesapeake blue-shells and atmosphere, we love Costas Inn (4100 North Point Blvd., Dundalk,  477-1975). They sell the big boys at this Dundalk gem, too, but at astonishingly reasonable prices. The dining room appears a tad too nice for your typical crab house--there's good lighting, carpeting, and padded chairs, as opposed to the usual strings of plastic-shaded party lights swinging over picnic benches--but the hard-shells here are the real thing. (The authenticity of Costas is doubled by its Siamese-twin pit beef stand and trebled by the stellar Maryland crab soup it concocts.)
L.P. Steamers (1100 E. Fort Ave., 576-9294) has similarly spectacular crabs in a homier setting that reminds us of the neighborhood crab houses of our lost youth. Housed in a converted rowhouse, this unpretentious Locust Point restaurant also steams every sort of crustacean imaginable--try the steamed appetizer platter, with clams, mussels, oysters, shrimp, and lobster--and serves up pleasingly plump crab cakes to boot.
Out Essex way, Mr. Bill's Terrace Inn (200 Eastern Blvd., Essex,  687-5994) is another local favorite source for crabs, which are served year-round. We enjoy the long, long paper-covered tables (on busy nights you might have to share with strangers--somewhere, Mr. Rogers is smiling), the efficient but friendly waitresses who magically appear with a pitcher of beer the moment yours is emptied, and the proprietary crab seasoning--nicely spiced rock salt (is that cumin we taste?) with a peppery kick. Mr. Bill himself will often stop by to make sure your crabs are good and your every desire satisfied.
You might also occasionally find crabs on the specials menu at U Jung (12 W. 20th St.,  230-0422), though the seasoning will be unmistakably East Asian--garlic, chili, sesame, and soy--rather than Eastern Shore. Squid is a specialty here--try the scallion and tentacle-studded pa jun (a kind of giant savory, gloriously greasy pancake) or the spicy squid stir-fried with vegetables and soba noodles. We're generally suspect of the sushi served in most Korean joints, but U Jung does it right--the fish is firm, fresh, and well-prepared here.
Next door at Joung Kak (18 W. 20th St.,  837-5231) the emphasis is on turf rather than surf. This is Korean barbecue central, where you grill your own meat over a sizzling pot of hot coals, then wrap it up in a lettuce leaf with garlic, peppers, rice, and sauce--no plate necessary! Prices here are wonderfully inexpensive; for example, the eponymous house special--a feast of soup, dumplings, barbecued tenderloin and short ribs, fried fish, and more--is made for sharing. At a mere $23.95, it's more food than two people can reasonably hope to eat--perhaps Mr. Rogers is free for lunch to help shoulder the barbecue burden.
When jonesing for Korean food, however, our first love is still Nam Kang (2126 Maryland Ave.,  685-6237), the great-granddaddy of Baltimore's Korean restaurants and the place that added bulgogi, galbi, and bibimbab to the city's culinary lexicon. Fiery jampong--seafood stew with a fierce sheen of chili oil floating on top--is a particular star, though all the favorites are done well. Nam Kang puts on one of the best panchan spreads in town; the tiny snack bowls feature the usual kimchi and bean sprout suspects, with interesting variations including seaweed, tiny dried fish, and mung beans, to name but a few we've encountered.
If Charm City were only blessed with a similar plethora of excellent Chinese restaurants. Newcomer Chinatown Café's (323 Park Ave., 727-5599) menu is rife with bona fide--and intriguing--dishes found on no other Baltimore-area board of fare. Seafood could not be fresher; part of the charm of dining here is watching the waiter dip up a red snapper or Dungeness crab from the bubbling aquariums out front. That creature's immediate future involves ginger and scallions, but lucky you--yours involves an excellent dish such as fried crispy scallops with oranges and spicy salt. Dim sum is served daily, though the steam carts roll only on the weekends.
It's worth the drive to Howard County to dine at Jesse Wong's Asean Bistro (8775 Centre Park Drive, Columbia,  772-5300), where authentic regional Chinese dishes share the menu with other Southeast Asian entrées. There's a fantastic tea-smoked duck, and any of the seafood dishes are worth a try; we're especially fond of scallops in black pepper sauce and the hot hot hot Kowloon shrimp. With its orchid-garnished presentation, mood lighting, and smooth service, Jesse Wong's is more polished than your usual Chinese joint, but its moderate prices don't match the upscale surroundings.
Bright little Ginza Japanese Steakhouse (56 Cranbrook Road, Cockeysville,  666-7900, 9616 Reisterstown Road, Owings Mills,  363-4233) was such a hit in its original Cockeysville location that the owners recently opened a second place in Owings Mills. It's the usual teppan yaki experience--blond wood, white paper screens, giant cans of Sapporo, the screaming chef setting the grill on fire and then juggling a few butcher knives (trust us, after your second sake it will all seem normal). In between the dramatics, however, it's possible to enjoy some surprisingly good sushi and hibachi-grilled beef, chicken, or seafood. (Tip: Pony up the extra buck for fried rice--it's terrific--or make sure to snag some from your grill-side neighbor's plate. After all, the name of the game is sharing.)
812 Park Ave.
Baltimore, MD 21201