U is for United Nations
Restaurant · Silk Road · Braznell's Caribbean Kitchen · Orchard Market and Café · Ze Mean Bean Café · Saigon · House of Kabob · Desert Café · Restaurante San Luis · Little Havana · Café
The aforementioned survivor is Azeb's Ethiopian Restaurant (322 N. Charles St.,  625-9787), and long may she wave. Sitting under colorful murals and hovering over traditional basket-style tables, we get our fill of aromatic, peppery chicken and beef stews and smooth, spicy lentils and split peas on platters of injera, the spongy bread that serves as both plate and utensil in Ethiopian cuisine--you scoop up the meat and veggies with hunks of the bread. It's not only delicious, but truckloads of fun.
Just up the street, the elegantly appointed Silk Road (336 N. Charles St.,  385-9013) provides healing doses of puréed-pumpkin soup amid its menu of Afghan fare. Aprés soup, we heartily recommend any of the excellent saffron-rice dishes.
For a place that hates taking phone orders and where service and menu availability seem to depend largely on the owners' moods, Braznell's Caribbean Kitchen (1623 E. Baltimore St.,  327-2445) sure is lovable. Somehow, Esme and Alfred Braznell's quirks are part of the charm. Besides, his tangy, fruity, rummy Calypso Punches and her richly flavorful Trinidadian cooking (do not miss the curried-meat-and-vegetable rhoties) will help you overlook just about anything. And it's still our favorite place to take guests willing to indulge in a bit of the funky and exotic.
Orchard Market and Café (8815 Orchard Tree Lane, Towson,  339-7700) calls its chow "nouvelle Persian." Translation: offerings that come with a heftier price tag than a simple meal of rice and kabob. But oh, the results! This is a beautiful restaurant, with hanging rugs, a fountain, and the feeling that you have stolen away to a private courtyard. Eggplant dip with mint, onions, and walnuts is pure ambrosia. Plates are big and beautiful, the service gracious, the entrées (especially anything with chicken) delicious. Save room for a range of authentic and not-so-authentic desserts (our choice is the homemade saffron ice cream). After the banquet, re-enter the real world warily. It'll come as a shock to your system.
A treat for gourmands of both food and music, Fells Point's Ze Mean Bean Café (1739-42 Fleet St.,  675-5999) specializes in Polish favorites familiar to most Eastern European cuisines. Order the sampler plate for a taste of potato pancakes, stuffed cabbage, and those little filled pockets of dough called pierogies. Borscht, hot or cold, is delicious. The menu has expanded recently, and there are upscale meals and special full-course dinners (with BYOB wine), plus stunning desserts beckoning you from the glass case. And call ahead for the musical lineup: Someone is playing, singing, or stomping almost every night.
For one of Baltimore's most authentic ethnic-dining experiences--and one of its most inexpensive--slip into Saigon (3345 Belair Road,  276-0055). This Belair-Edison storefront is cozy and kid-friendly. (The owners will likely have an adorable urchin or two running about.) Enjoy a glass of BYOB wine or one of the exotic Asian drinks (such as jackfruit shakes) with a round of appetizers (the shrimp bun comes to mind), and watch the kitchen turn out plates bearing sugar-cane stalks and steaming clay- casserole dishes. The less adventuresome will like anything on a skewer, served with rice or cellophane noodles, and chopped veggies with a plastic cup of dressing. Forgo dessert for a glass of strong Viet-style iced coffee, so sweet it makes your teeth ache.
Call to check on buffet days (lunch or dinner) at House of Kabob (8025 Harford Road,  663-0211) for a sampling of the palette of Persian cuisine at pauper prices. Start with eggplant purée or salad shiraz, a diced mix of onions, tomatoes, and cukes, then layer your plate with perfect basmati rice, ready to receive kabobs and hearty stews like fessengun--boneless chicken in a dark sauce of pomegranate juice and ground walnuts. Sample the hearty peasant soup, aush, a meld of kidney and garbanzo beans, noodles, vegetables, mint, and broth. The chicken kabob is succulent, the lamb fragrant. They even make a kabob of ground beef fashioned around specially made flat skewers. Dessert might be saffron-rice pudding or something redolent of rosewater, the perfect accompaniment for which is Persian cardamom tea.
Choose a perfect spring day, or an unseasonably warm winter one, to stake your claim to a table on the porch of the homey Desert Café (1605-07 Sulgrave Ave., 410 367-5808), perched in pretty Mount Washington. Inhale the aromas of the Middle East--fresh-tasting tabouli, smoky baba ghanooj, fragrant falafel. The only Middle Eastern conflict here is which delicacy to choose. A savory spinach-and-feta pie? The creamy hummus with pita triangles? Somehow this seems more the place for tea than coffee. Sip a cup and enjoy a few bites of their gourmet desserts. Peaceful, isn't it? Maybe they should have the next summit meeting here.
Along lower Broadway, fast becoming a Latino enclave, a storefront sign proclaims hispanish chinese food. Make no mistake, you've arrived at Restaurante San Luis (246 S. Broadway,  327-0266), where El Salvador once met China. It made for a unique dining experience--one side of the menu Central American, the other Chinese. China has fled the union, and these days San Luis styles itself Salvadoran and Mexican, serving up the likes of pupusas, tamales, pastelitos, and quesadillas along with steaks and a variety of stews (chicken, pork, tongue) served with rice and beans. Although the menu has changed, the décor (white tin ceiling, walls painted two shades of pink) has remained the same.
For us, the food isn't the draw at Little Havana (1325 Key Highway,  837-9903). We visit this waterfront restaurant for the view from the patio, where we can while away the hours with a shared carafe or two of sangria. During the cold months, we're been known to drop all of our laundry money in the bar's pool tables. Still, when our stomachs do get to growling, Little Havana has Cuban delicacies to keep us going. The paella is big enough for two, but the empanadas are so good you won't want to share.
Wedged between downtown's office buildings, Café Bombay (114 E. Lombard St., (410) 539-2233) is off the beaten path as restaurants go, but in terms of Indian food it's a true find, specializing in dishes from the owners' native southern India that you won't find on most subcontinental menus. What this place is lacking in atmosphere--power-lunch white shirts sort of blend right in with the stark, pastel walls--it makes up for in the kitchen and in price.
When it's dank and chilly outside, don't you just crave a hot bowl of soup? And when it's hot and muggy, doesn't a meal of chilled soup hit the spot? Lisa's Coffee House (2110 N. Charles St.,  727-7081) can help on both scores, serving up hot and cold borscht. Stir in the sour cream, dip in some pieces of Lisa's fresh, crusty pumpernickel bread, and you got a meal for all seasons. This cozy little Lower Charles Village basement also serves up a host of Eastern European favorites such as beef stroganoff and pierogies.
A visit to Vera's Bakery & Café (548 Baltimore Annapolis Blvd., Severna Park,  647-3337) is a truly sensual experience. Chef and co-owner Vera Hasler Port specializes in Portuguese and European cooking, and she puts a lot of care into her work: The gorgeous tropical salad is chock full of fresh fruit--banana, pineapple, grapes, guava. A simple chicken-salad sandwich comes to life with meaty and flavorful chunks of fowl on thick slices of delicious, toasted egg bread. Moqueca, a dish featuring shrimp in Creole sauce served with yellow rice, is pleasing to the taste and to the eye. And the bakery counter in this home suburban café is stuffed with beautiful, fragrant breads and pastries. If this is what cooking is in Brazil, every day must be carnival.
812 Park Ave.
Baltimore, MD 21201