Braznell's Caribbean Kitchen · Saigon Restaurant · Thai Restaurant · Matsuri · Lisa's Cofee House · Ze Mean Bean Café · Blue Nile · Azeb's Ethiopian Restaurant · The Helmand · Ariana Restaurant
Braznell's Caribbean Kitchen (1623 E. Baltimore St.,  327-2445) is one of Baltimore's best bets if you're looking for something funky and a bit out-of-the-way. You'll recognize this place a few blocks from Fells Point by the big white sign towering over Baltimore Street and the year-round Christmas lights in the window; you'll remember it for the tantalizing Trinidadian fare (especially the wonderfully curried rhotis)--if your memory's not impaired by owner/bartender Alfred Braznell's tangy calypso punches.
Exotic eats in prosaic surroundings: Belair-Edison's Saigon Restaurant (3345 Belair Road,  276-0055) offers up the likes of jack-fruit shakes and grilled minced shrimp speared with sugar cane. Vietnamese cuisine is an acquired taste but you're liable to acquire it within the first few bites of the super-gingery chicken dish com ga siu siu an dong.
Decorated with carved wood screens and silk paintings, the graceful dining room of Waverly's Thai Restaurant (3316 Greenmount Ave.,  889-7303) is a wonderful place to experience the sometimes subtle, sometimes fiery joys of Thai food. The aptly named eatery does an admirable job with Thai classics from tod man pla (shrimp and fish cakes) to the ever popular pad Thai (the tofu version is especially good). Afterwards, the intensely sweet Thai iced coffee will leave you buzzing to beat the band.
These days, when you can get sushi at strip malls, Matsuri (1105 S. Charles St.,  752-8561) might be the only place left in Baltimore that can still make Japanese food seem challenging and exotic. (Perhaps the sumo wrestling that seems to air perpetually on the house TV has something to do with it.) This tiny Federal Hill haunt is funkier than the city's other Japanese restaurants, more casual, and less expensive. The dramatically presented sushi and sashimi are quite good, but Matsuri's menu ventures far beyond the sushi bar. The terrific shrimp dumplings, steaming bowls of outstanding udon noodle soup, and sesame-sprinkled teriyaki salmon are all authentically Japanese and entirely excellent.
Lisa's Cofee House (2110 N. Charles St .,  727-7081) is a quaint Charles Village eatery, the Ukrainian roots of which show up in both the spelling of its name and the menu full of Black Sea specialties. The borscht--either hot or cold--is not to be missed; nor are other unusual-to-Baltimore dishes such as pierogies and kasha. The homemade pastries are excellent, and the coffee--oops, cofee--is swell as well.
Ze Mean Bean Café (1739-41 Fleet St.,  675-5999) is an espresso bar serving the usual lite fare--but then these days, what café isn't? Ze Mean Bean's true talents lie in the Slavic portion of the menu, where terrific treats such as holupki (cabbage rolls) and potato pancakes await. Best of all are the pierogies, succulent dumplings bursting with potato, cheese, sauerkraut, or fruit fillings--too delicious for words. Don't miss the homemade breads and desserts, either, especially the heavenly apple pie.
One of the area's most positive recent culinary developments is the long-overdue emergence of an Ethiopian-restaurant scene. OK, it's just two places, but we'll take it. We like the Blue Nile (2101 N. Charles St.,  783-0982) for lunch--the big-windowed storefront lets in plenty of sunshine and the marvelously ritualistic coffee service seems like a decadent midday treat, especially on the heels of spicy heaps of doro wat (stewed chicken) and kitfo (collard greens with spiced cheese) scooped up, in the traditional Ethiopian fashion, with spongy injera bread. Come nightfall we prefer the darker, more elegant Azeb's Ethiopian Restaurant (322 N. Charles St.,  625-9787), with its traditional place settings, colorful murals, and liquor license. Chicken or beef in peppery berbere sauce always makes for good sub-Saharan eats, but we particularly recommend the veggie platter, groaning with lentils, split peas, cabbage, and more on a bed of injera.
A perennial contender for City Paper's annual Best Restaurant honors (and a winner last year), the Helmand (806 N. Charles St.,  752-0311) conjures up Afghan food that rushes right past delicious into the realm of the sublime. We honestly cannot get enough of the aushak (leek ravioli in a ground-beef or split-pea sauce), spinach-stuffed eggplant, tomato-y mushroom or chicken lawand, and pan-fried pumpkin, nor do we ever expect to.
Down south--by which we mean Severna Park--Ariana Restaurant (584 Benfield Road,  647-6964) juggles Afghan, Israeli, and even a bit of Indian and Greek, with a panache that belies its side-of-the-road strip-mall digs. The vegetable dishes, especially the mustardy mushrooms and the subtly spiced pumpkin, are particular highlights. And where else are you going to get Lebanese beer in north Arundel?
812 Park Ave.
Baltimore, MD 21201