Friday, August 26, 2011

Mexican Food Comes to Harford County

Today, at the recommendation of a trusted source, I tried Fiesta Grill Mexican restaurant. Located in the mini-mall on Tollgate Road adjacent to The Harford Mall, it's an unlikely place to find authentic Mexican food. But, at long last, the real thing has arrived in Harford County. For a little background information, here is a brief history of Mexican food in Harford County. And I can assure you it will be brief as there is not much to tell.

We arrived in the area after spending a couple of years in the city. This was before the stretch of Broadway between Johns Hopkins and the Broadway Market became Spanish Town. Still there were a couple of really good places, like the late and much lamented La Rotisseria, purveyor of the best rotisserie chicken, green sauce, and (if you were really lucky), hand-made pupusas. We did not know how good we had it.

When we moved to Edgewood, our choices were quite suddenly reduced to the Taco Bell on Route 40, and the Bel Air ChiChi's. With a commute that ended at White Marsh, any hopes for a decent taco for lunch were also dashed.

Shortly after moving to Havre de Grace, the clouds parted, and we saw the arrival of La Tolteca, a regional chain in the DelMarVa area. Suddenly, we had tamales, stuffed poblanos, chorizo, and bean dip (!) within a 10-minute drive of home. We became regulars and blew through the menu in a few months. Shortly thereafter, we realized that everything actually tastes the same and is really just the same fillings and sauces in your choice of packaging. Which is one of the drawbacks of a chain. Still, the Churchville location provides live mariachi music, and some semblance of authenticity is maintained.

Now, after just over a decade in the area, we have all kinds of chain Mexican food, from the palatable (if not entirely authentic) Baja Fresh to the deplorable Chipotle Grill, the one place I walked out of based simply on the smell of the food.

This is what a taco looks like
And, just around the corner from them, the surprising Fiesta Grill. The take out menu they gave me has the tagline "Authentic Mexican and Salvadorean Cuisine", and it certainly appears to be so. The menu in the restaurant is a mixture of Spanish and English and did not include the more Anglo-sounding items I found on the take out menu, like the Surf and Turf burrito, a combination of grilled steak and crab. They also serve America's favorite items - nachos and taco salad.

The rest of the menu has a variety of burritos, tacos and quesadillas with everything from chorizo to grilled fish. I went for one of these more traditional selections and ordered the Taco de Lengua and yucca fries with a mandarin Jarritos, Mexico's ubiquitous bottled soda.

The kitchen is an open area immediately behind the counter, similar to the places I have visited in Spanish Town. You can watch them prepare your meal if the two TVs are not of interest. On my visit they were showing a Latino novella and not the usual football, so I watched the action in the kitchen.
Yucca perfection

After a brief wait, my yucca fries were delivered. Thick, tender, and steaming hot, they were lightly dusted with paprika and, despite being deep fried, were not greasy. They came with a cream-based dipping sauce that had a hint of egg similar to the aiollis I get at home.

The tacos arrived shortly afterward. The meat had been prepared in a savory brown sauce with chunks of green pepper that was flavorful without being hot. It was served on two soft corn tortillas that had that bread-like quality of freshly made tortillas and reminded me of the tortillaria on Eastern Avenue in Baltimore. There are none of the usual heavy trappings of American tacos - no cheese or sour cream - just fresh cilantro leaves and chopped onions in generous quantity, plus a thick lime wedge. I abandoned the yucca and proceeded to eat the tacos without stopping until they were both gone. And I took the yucca home with me to finish later.
Flavor Cupcakery lives up to its name

Which brings me to Friday's cupcake - this week from Flavor Cupcakery,  located just a couple of doors down. I stayed with the Latino theme and got the Tres Leches to go. Even in the superior packaging, it barely survived the drive home in today's pre-hurricane humidity. What I thought was icing turned out to be a very lightly sweetened whipped creme, a highly appropriate topping for the rich vanilla cake. The cake itself felt and tasted like it had indeed been soaked in cream. It was a very well executed novelty variety and a strong showing on their part. While I'm not going to throw over IcedGems anytime soon, it's nice to know I can get my cupcake fix locally and not just on Fridays. I fear for my waistline.

And for those of you who don't know what exactly was in my tacos, you'll have to Google it.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Sweet Devotion Cupcake and Creperie Cafe

Today I cheated on IcedGems. I was lured in by the carrot cake, blantantly on display and listed as, not a specialty flavor, but a standard right along side vanilla, chocolate, caramel and Red Velvet. Regret was soon to follow.
Mmmmmmmm cupcakes

I entered Sweet Devotion Cupcake and Creperie Cafe with lunch intentions and because I feel a genuine need to support anyone in Harford County who wants to reach beyond pizza, pit beef and Chinese take-out. I must first admit that I am spoiled when it comes to crepes. My counterpart makes a savory crepe that is somehow both hearty and light. He makes a perfect bechemel sauce and is a firm believer in the whole "everything is better with cheese" philosophy that is a cornerstone of my formative years in Wisconsin. That being said, I am no stranger to restaurant crepes. When I worked in midtown Baltimore, I was quite familiar with the devine wilted spinach crepe on Sotto Sopra's lunch menu.

Sweet Devotion's savory crepes seem to lean closer to the American palate with combos that you could also package in a nice roll - The Classic Ham and Swiss, The Caprese and even Chicken Cordon Bleu. Their complete menu is posted on their website. Being an avid seafood fan, I went with The Norwegian - smoked salom, tomatoes, Boursin cheese in lieu of the traditional bechemel, and a surprise sprinkling of capers.

Each crepe is made to order on large flat irons right behind the counter. The crepe itself is broad in diameter and thin in weight and is folded around the filling. It is a light and delicate creation that melted in my mouth but was a little bland. I tend to be more partial to the heartier rustic crepes and missed the added body you get with a pinch of buckwheat in the mix.

Real food on real dishes
The crepe is served on a bed of mixed greens on an actual china plate with real cutlery, giving Sweet Devotion some serious bonus points. The salmon worked well in this setting. The Boursin cheese, however, felt a bit too salty to go along with the already salty smoked fish. The sliced tomatoes counter balanced this somewhat but were not evenly distributed throughout the crepe for consistency in this area. This particular combo might be best eaten at home with a nice Pilsner.

And then there was the matter of the cupcake. The fellow behind the counter seemed a tad curt when I asked if the cupcakes were baked on premesis. He assured me that they are baked fresh every day and that there was a batch coming up at that very moment. Imagine my joy at seeing carrot cake on the menu! While I am an unrepentent IcedGems junkie, if I'm jonesing for the earthy spicy goodness of carrot cake (which is quite honestly most of the time), I'm SOL as they do not make the stuff, not even for special occaisions. So, even though I was planning on sampling both a savory and a sweet crepe, I ended up with a cupcake that was sadly inferior to my usual Friday cupcake experience.

The cake itself was light and moist but surprisingly lacking in flavor. Any flavor. It wasn't very sweet. It wasn't very spicy. It wasn't much of anything. And the texture was odd, not just because of the presence of the dreaded pineapple. This adds nothing to carrot cake and invariably gets stuck between my teeth. Really what is the point?  I've gotten used to the gourmet cupcakes I've been eating in town, and this one reminded me more of a grocery store counterfeit. And the icing was an over-whipped version of the traditional cream cheese icing. The flavor was just OK, but much like the cake, the texture was also somewhat troubling.

It sure looks tempting........
.........but the pineapple cannot be ignored

Overall, this was a pretty decent crepe experience. In addition to providing Harford County with something that resembles what our forebears would recognize as food, these guys seem to be taking a more mindful approach to their business. In addition to the real dishes for my eat-in order, I was asked if I wanted my credit card receipt (I said no as they just clog up my pocketbook until I can't close the thing anymore and I have to do a grand mal purge of them). This gives them some environmental cred, which I consider important in our local businesses. In addition to a counter and the usual table and chairs, Sweet Devotion has a sitting room with a sofa and chairs around a giant set of checkers (pictured below). I'll be visiting them again for a sweet crepe and another shot at their cupcakes. They also serve coffee and scones.

The Sitting Room

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Pit Beef

The mid-week visit to The Silver Platter resulted in a perfect pit beef sandwich. And this time I got the highly recommended potato ribbons. Today was definitely a clean-plate day.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

The Gathering

The professional food truck vendors in Baltimore are organizing. Last month they all came together in the first collective event that they dubbed The Gathering. I missed that first event but made it to the second Gathering yesterday evening.

And it is fairly well organized. A large parking lot at the end of Wolfe Street provided enough space for about a dozen or so food trucks, some seating, the requisite line of Johnny-on-the-Spots, plus a wine and beer table and a small live band. Located on the water, this seemed a superior location that the first Gathering, which was held on Central Avenue in a vacant lot with little shade and no cross breeze.

It was a beautiful evening, coming after a couple of weeks of fairly incessant heat and temperatures in the city regularly reaching triple-digits. There was a good-sized crown of happy food truck enthusiasts, and we all managed to form respectful lines at each truck without the need for corrals. Really, we all just cooperated and no one cut the line or pushed through the crowd. IT was a shining moment for civility. The whole thing had the air of a neighborhood block party and Baltimore felt like a community instead of the uneasy mix of white-collar well-to-do's bumping up against the downtrodden and potentially dangerous.

Represented at The Gathering were:

The Silver Platter
Miss Shriley's
Iced Gems
The Haute Dog
The Gypsy Queen Cafe
Flippin Pizza
Souper Freaks
Fojol Brothers Ethiopian
Curbside Cafe
Chasin Cafe
Dangerously Delicious Pies

And several others whose names I could not determine. I had the company of a couple of fellow foodies from work. We just couldn't try everything, so we did a couple of circuits and determined what we wanted to eat.

Our first stop was Flippin Pizza for two slices and a free mini stromboli. The portions were generous, but the slices were thin. I did not indulge in this, and my colleague offered little feedback, leaving me with the impression that this was fairly average.

Our next stop was The Gypsy Queen Cafe, famous for bacon - chocolate covered bacon, caramel bacon donuts, and the cone of grilled cheese with bacon. We had to try it. Served in a waffle cone and covered with barbecue sauce, this concept item was good only until the sauce was gone. The bacon was sparse and could have been more crisp. And without the sauce, the mac and cheese was bland and flat. The waffle cone was avoided altogether.

Our third stop was a cart that I've wanted to try for some time but have been thwarted by geography as they never come down to Harbor East - the Haute Dog. They did not disappoint. They serve large all-beef franks stuffed into a  small baguette of really good bread that has been skewered rather than sliced so the dog fits snugly into the hole. I'm not entirely sure what it was dressed with as one of my colleagues purchased it. We tasted sweet relish and tomatoes, but she said it also had dijon and "something-something-something" that sounded good to her so she said OK. Overall this was was winner. The dog was well seasoned and not too salty. The bread had a nice crust and good texture that was chewy without being a jaw-breaker. And the toppings - whatever they were - complemented the meat without overpowering it.

Our last stop was the Dangerously Delicious Pies where we got a little something to take home. More on that later.

Overall, it seems like Baltimore's food truck vendors are proving themselves to be a serious force in the restaurant community. This Gathering was deemed better than the first by my colleagues. There was a shortage of seating - which we did not mind - and a shortage of garbage cans - which we did. Also, while we avoided the adult beverages, we heard someone in the crowd say that in addition to paying for your drinks, you also have to pay for your over-21 bracelet. I'll be there for the third Gathering, though, as Baltimore's burgeoning food cart community is worthy of our support.

Iced Gems Baking - over 30 varieties of cupcakes

Chasin Cafe - sandwiches

The Silver Platter, where they can now recognize me in a crowd

GrrChe Gourmet Grilled Cheese

Dangerously Delicious Pies - sweet and savory

A Flippin Pizza employee

Flippin Pizza - two slices and a mini stromboli

Souper Freak, featuring soups inspired by Maryland, including a watermelon gazpacho that I almost tried

Chocolate covered bacon. With Teddy Grahams. Nirvana.

The Caramel Bacon donut

Fun for the whole family

The Haute Dog
The Gypsy Queen Cafe Mac and Cheese cone