More More Baltimore! An SJ Post.

February 26th, 2012 § 0 comments

SJ here. Last week a photograph of mine of a Chesapeake Bay Oyster topped with a slice of hard boiled egg caused HG such a wave of food envy that he was prompted to write a post about it (see An HG Sin: Food Envy) Well, as much as I love HG, I love to fan the embers of his Food Envy into a roaring fire. Soo….let me tell you a little about that oyster…

Last week, myself, my wife — the aptly named Exquisite Maiko — and our son decided to forsake our beloved NYC for a weekend in Baltimore. The drive down took only about 3 hours and along the way we stopped in Wilmington, Delaware at the Charcoal Pit for absolutely great hamburgers and milkshakes.

The Charcoal Pit is a Road Food classic — been there since the 1950s and still as popular as ever. Places like this often become parodies of themselves, existing in the squinty light of nostalgia — but the Pit avoids that trap by neither seeming cutesy nor precious and instead just serving up good, well made classic food at very reasonable prices.

The last time I had been in Baltimore I went to Obryckis in Fells Point for crabs. They were dumped right on the table onto butcher’s paper, and hammer in hand I demolished a number of these wonderful crustaceans steamed in a heady black-pepper seasoning. I was excited to return and excited for Exquisite Maiko to taste such a regional specialty. Alas, Obryckis has closed (note to all restaurants who close and have websites: MAKE BEING CLOSED THE FOCUS OF YOUR WEBSITE!!!) so we had to find an alternative. Now, not being from Baltimore and not really knowing a lot about the city, it can be hard separating out the tourist crap from something both authentic and authentically good. So, reading between the lines of numerous blog postings and Best Of Baltimore lists, we decided on a spot called Canton Dockside who seemed to be the spot for year-round crabs. Well, we got there and guess what…NO CRABS! Why? Because Canton Dockside gets their crabs in the off-season from Louisiana and this being Mardi Gras week all the Louisiana Crabbers were either too drunk to ship crabs or they wanted to keep all crabs within the state for Mardi Gras. Either way, we were thwarted but soothed ourselves with great broiled crab cakes (light on the mayonnaise and breadcrumbs), plump shrimps steamed with Old Bay Seasoning and a rather horrifying pretzel like thing smeared in cheese and crab dip (the less said about that last dish, the better!).

I also made a new friend in the Baltimore beer known as National Bohemian Beer or Natty Boh.

Extremely cold and extremely yummy!

The next day, we woke up early to take in some real touristy stuff (Huge Aquarium! Dolphin Show!) and get hungry in preparation for my focus — The covered markets of Baltimore. Since 1763, Baltimore has maintained a group of municipally owned covered markets that serve specific neighborhoods. There are seven markets remaining in Baltimore and the largest is the Lexington Market located right in the heart of Down Town. I had heard tell of some serious food happening at this Lexington Market so off we went. Well…I absolutely fell in love. Lexington market is an urban institution — while tourists like myself might pass through, the market is unadorned, gritty and absolutely true to itself.

This is the spot for discount groceries, cheap cell phone plans, butchers that specialize in the rough bits (chitterlings, hog maws, ham hocks, pig ears, fat back and more), fish mongers and stall upon stall of prepared foods — many of which hawk the fact that they accept CDC vouchers and food stamps. So what were in these stalls? Well, oddly, the majority seem to have been taken over by Chinese and Koreans who are serving up a mixture of cheap Chinese and soul food staples — beef and broccoli alongside stewed chicken and dumplings not to mention the happy guy I saw munching away on a scoop-full of pork fried rice accompanied by a bowl of Chitterlings doused with hot sauce.

There is no pretensions of regional food-ways purity here at the Lexington. Its cheap and good? Yes! Lots of fried chicken spots with a heavy focus on the livers, backs and gizzards — not something you see at KFC! Many sandwich spots selling (I think) Baltimore produced smoked meats — courtesy of its Polish and German immigrants. And, fruit salad — big containers of very fresh and very cheap fruit salad. Interestingly, I noticed that you could use your food stamps to buy fruit salad, fruit smoothies and groceries, but not a lot of the heavier prepared foods — I am imagining that this was a bid by the Health Department to influence healthier eating standards. And all the way in back — pretty much a separate enclave all to itself is Faidley’s Seafood.

Faidley’s is a working seafood market hawking the rather impressive bounty of the Chesapeake Bay and other southern water-ways, but they also have a raw bar and a simple lunch counter serving up hot foods. Well, I sidled up to the raw bar — packed with working people simply gorging on oysters and clams and plastic cups of Natty Boh — and ordered myself a half dozen “Prime” oysters. The oyster man was astonishing; as fast and precise a shucker as I have ever witnessed even while keeping up a running commentary as to whether or not (based on his emotional speech at her funeral) Kevin Costner and Whitney Houston ever had sex (Yes! we raw bar denizens agreed). I was asked, as the plate of fat, shimmery bivalves appeared before me, if I wanted an egg with my oysters. An egg? Madness!!! Nope. Just hit me with some lemon and a touch of hot sauce and I am good. Well I slurped those six down and they were cold, briny, firm with a touch of cucumber snap that I just love. Ahhh…The joy of a good oyster. Well, as I let out a sated breath I glanced at my neighbor, who was there with his girl, drinking beers and preparing his oysters with a slice of hard-boiled egg!!! Yes! He had a hard-boiled egg slicer and was layering the egg slices on top of his oysters with horseradish and hot sauce. This guy looked like a serious Baltimorean, so I had to ask if the egg was the Baltimore style? Oh yes he said. So, I had to give it a shot — six more with a boiled egg. Well, they brought them over, I peeled the egg, used the slicer and got to work. My new friend guided me — “You got the horse radish first, then you got to hit it with the black pepper…yeah that’s it, don’t be scared of the black pepper! Then squeeze that lemon right on top and lay that egg right right up on there. Yeah! Hit it with the hot sauce now!” — and then I was ready.

Wow! Oh boy was this a good thing. Somehow, the smoothness of a boiled egg blends with the brine of the oyster and the bite of hose-radish to create something unique that doesn’t distract from the very oysterness of the experience. While I probably won’t be putting hard-boiled eggs on my beloved Prince Edward Island oysters, the whole experience, the specificity of the place, the very real connections that you can make with strangers when you express interest in a local specialty put a giant smile on my face and made those oysters amongst the most special I have ever eaten. Exquisite Maiko (very pregnant at this point and simmering with jealousy that she could not eat an oyster) took in some crab cakes from the counter and pronounced them unbeatable.

Faidley's Crab Cake

So, if you ever find yourself in Baltimore, ignore the Yelp and Google and Yahoo reviews that describe the Lexington Market as being scary and sketchy and filled with drug addicts and homeless people and march your way in and have a chilled Chesapeake Bay oyster topped with hard boiled egg on me. Thank me later and tell HG about it as soon as you can!

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