Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Kloby's Gets Love From The Travel Channel For Jarbecue, Huge Burgers And More



The Travel Channel came to Kloby's Smokehouse, and they're celebrating the jarbecue, the huge burgers and more.

Check out the link above to see owner Steve Klobosits talk with one of Travel's personalites on a show that appears to be concentrate on bacon.  Or check the YouTube link where the channel listed Kloby's as #50 on their list of 101 places to chow down.

The '34 Act Gourmet and I were early proponents of the jarbecue -- a mason jar layered with pulled pork, cole slaw, baked beans and now bacon.  I'm a huge fan of Kloby's barbecue, especially the ribs and pulled pork.  It's my local for meat and bourbon.

Of course, the Travel Channel's narration forces me to make the point that Kloby's isn't in Laurel.  I know that's the mailing address, but HowChow's only political campaign rails against using "Laurel" for anything west of Rte 29.  And it promotes "Tribeco."

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Pink Plate Specials -- Restaurants Raising Money In April For The Local Cancer Center

I cannot post about all the specials and promotions run by Howard County restaurants, but how can I turn down the "pink plate" specials?

A bunch of local restaurants are running specials through April and donating money to the cancer center at Howard County Hospital.  See the list above or an Open Table page that lists the restaurants. Steve Wecker, a co-owner of the Iron Bridge Wine Company, has helped organize the week and has been trying to foment competitive fundraising against Aida Bistro and other local restaurants.

Ramen In Howard County -- Two Spots For Now, And Plans For "Uma Uma" Coming To Rte 40

Ichiban Cafe's ramen
I'm nervous to write about ramen, but we need to start the conversation because you can slurp bowls here in Howard County.

Ramen is a Japanese noodle soup that has had a long-standing spot with chefs and food writers who champion favorite places and talk up both tradition and innovation.  Chicken or pork broth.  Vegetarian versions.  Add-in ingredients like pork belly or poached eggs or . . . intestine.  Ramen is something more than a meal and less than a craze.

The New York Times wrote about ramen.  Artifact Coffee in Baltimore did a six-day special celebration.  David Chang talked it up on his PBS series Mind of a Chef and even offers his recipe in the Momofuku cookbook.

Now, you can get in on the movement closer to home.

We've eaten ramen at two local restaurants -- Ichiban Cafe in Columbia and Manna in Ellicott City.  Again, I'm scared to write too much because I can't claim much knowledge.  On the one hand, it's a humble dish -- noodles, vegetables, maybe some meat or other special items, all in a warm broth.  On the other hand, people get crazy about ramen.

A few weeks ago, a friend met me for dinner in Manhattan, and we met at 5 pm.  She and her daughter were in line even earlier because Ippudo NY is so hot that it fills shortly after it opens and stays full all night.

I can't claim that our ramen matches one of the places that the New York Times calls one of the 10 best in the city.  Ippudo's broth was exquisite, and the fresh noodles were even better.  But I'll talk up both our local options -- and welcome other people to join in with observations.

Manna and Ichiban Cafe are both casual places -- one a Korean counter-service in the Lotte food court, the other a Japanese-Chinese place with a sushi menu near Target.  In both places, we ordered without expertise.  Manna has one broth and options for "add-ins" like dumplings.  Ichiban had two broths, and I somehow lost the notes that I typed as we ate.

Manna's ramen
In both places, you get a great dinner for $10-15.  Bowls of salty, spicy broth with warm noodles and toppings.  As I remember, Manna's looked like packaged ramen that I ate in college while Ichiban's seemed a bit more unusual.  But I enjoyed both -- especially I alternated between spoons of soup, slurps of noodles, and little treats like sliced pork or mushrooms -- without knowing how to judge them against anything else.

Give them a try in the next few months so you'll be ready when the specialists arrive.  Emily Kim emailed me last week to talk about her plans for a ramen-and-grilled-chicken restaurant that will replace the Jerry's Subs on Rte 40.  Emily is a University of Baltimore business student who is building a business from an obsession:
Back in 2009, I stumbled upon a Japanese ramen shop in New York during my spring break. From the first sip of Tonkotsu ramen broth and noodles, I found my new addiction.  I found myself getting Mega Bus ticket every week to get ramen.  So from beginning of 2013, I started a business plan to open a restaurant in Ellicott City.
That business will be Uma Uma -- a restaurant that Emily plans to open to serve both the noodle soup and the Japanese grilled chicken called yakatori.  The current plan is for construction to start June 1 and the restaurant to open in late summer.

So ramen has arrived in Howard County.  Newbies can have a great time just reading link after link about the dish's variations.  But some experienced folks could tell us what they think about these two local kitchens -- and anywhere else that I have missed so far.

The food court next to Lotte clearly holds treasures that I still need to find.  Manna sits in the back, but there are other Korean and Japanese options as well.  Can anyone recommend other dishes at joints in the food court?

Ichiban Cafe
6250 Columbia Crossing Circle
Columbia, MD 21045
410-290-1898

NEAR: Ichiban is in the Columbia Crossing shopping center with Target. This is off Rte 175 at Dobbin Road. It is near the Joseph A. Banks and across from the Dick's Sporting Goods.

Manna
inside the food court next to Lotte
11-A Golden Triangle
8801 Baltimore National Pike (Rte 40)
Ellicott City, MD 21043
410-480-5050

NEAR: Manna is inside the food court next to Lotte.  If you're looking at the supermarket, there is a door to the left that leads through some stores in a food court with about four restaurants.  Manna is at the far back.

Manna Food on Urbanspoon

Uma Uma (coming late summer 2014)
9380 Baltimore National Pike (Rte 40)
Ellicott City, MD 21042

NEAR: Uma Uma is coming to the space currently occupied by Jerry's Subs on the north side of Rte 40.  This will be right next to Lighthouse Tofu.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Big Change To The Main Street Market: Now Every Week On Saturday, Still Awesome Pizza

Big changes -- all for the best -- are coming to the farmers market run off Main Street in Ellicott City.

For several years, the folks behind Tersiguel's and the Little French Market ran a monthly market on the second Sunday of the month.  This weekend they announced that they'll run weekly markets in 2014 -- every Saturday morning in the courtyards off the parking lot behind Tersiguel's.  They'll use the name Old Town Market now that they're weekly.

I'll write more when the May 10 starting date gets closer, but this is a really fun event.  Last year, they had vendors selling produce and some products, including honey, jam, olives and pickles.  They also had barbecue, crepes and other food.  One of the real draws -- which will help headline the market in 2014 -- was River House Pizza, which makes wood-fired pizzas from a portable oven set up on site.

The plan for the markets is to run 9 am to 1 pm on Saturdays from May 10 to November 8, 2014.

A Detail At Bon Chon: Go For Delicious Fried Chicken, But Ask For The Hot Corn Tea

Corn tea at Bon Chon Chicken
Go to Bon Chon Chicken for the fried chicken, but check out the corn tea when you sit down.

Ask for the tea.  Customers who look Korean often receive hot tea in restaurants.  Other folks often get ice water, but you're welcome to ask for the tea.  It's complimentary.

You can get barley tea at Shin Chon Garden and Lighthouse Tofu.  At Bon Chon, you can get corn tea.  It's a mild earthy flavor with a clear aftertaste of sweet corn.  Great for warming.  Refreshing.  It doesn't cool down the fire of Bon Chon's spicy chicken, but it's a fun diversion.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Quick Hits: Reports On Bean & Burgundy, Le Comptoir, Cafe Au Lait's Bahn Mi And More

I always love that the local food scene has become robust enough that I can't possibly link to every post.  The HoCo Blogs food page remains the best source because that captures lots of voices, including some profiled in last year's Sun article.  But I like to highlight a few hits along the way:

  • Bean & Burgundy Bread got a favorable report from Elizabeth on The Bare Midriff.  She reported on a hybrid menu that mixes American and Korean dishes, and she liked her lunch.
  • Le Comptoir got a pass from The Two Dudes Who Love Food.  Since I think I'm the "hype" that they mention about the place, I have to note that they didn't have such a great visit.  Their family had a $47 breakfast that they definitely didn't love.  If you want the hype, check out my posts.  We love the joint for sweets and coffee.
  • Kitchen Scribble wrote up meals at two different places -- Cha Ya Asian Asian Bistro in Columbia and Cafe Au Lait in Ellicott City.  The cafe is the local outpost for bahn mi sandwiches.  I wrote about Cafe Au Lait's sandwiches in 2012, and kat ordered a huge selection for a group of people to share.
  • And the folks at Cha Ya keep posting videos on YouTube.  They're pretty interesting -- although I laughed at the video where the chef talked about the wok that he uses.  I'm actually infatuated by the jet engine gas burner that he uses.  How do I get one of those?

On top of those, check out a new food blog with local authors.  Three Beans On A String mostly does recipes -- lots of inspiration of fresh vegetables.  But they're local folks.  Elizabeth talked up a mushroom stroganoff that she had at Great Sage, and the Twitter feed is good to follow for other local food links and ideas.

Blob's Park To Close Again (For Good), Says Sun

Blob's Park will close again tomorrow -- and the Anne Arundel beer garden is slated for demolition, reports Julie Scharperer in the Sun.

Blob's is a specific taste, but it's an iconic place.  They serve good German sausages in a sparse, open hall where most people come for polka music, dancing and beer.  Like so much, it is making way so that the land can be developed.  I'll always remember it for a great wedding that we attended last year.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Worth Repeating: Grace Garden Makes The Region's Best Chinese; Go Pick What You Want

Fish noodles at Grace Garden
I'll leave Howard County for great food, and the easiest drive is for Chinese food off Rte 32 in Odenton.

Grace Garden serves hands-down the best Chinese food in the area.  So good that we had our best Chinese meal in years even though we ordered in part by just pointing at the dish that just happened to be served to the only other guy in the restaurant.

Of course, our table included some great favorites.  The fish noodles are a perfect dish -- actual noodles made from a paste of firm, white fish and flavored with an incredible mix of mushrooms, green onions and slivers of pork.  The sauce provides a warm richness, but there is no oiliness or grease.

You can't go wrong at Grace Garden.  It's a one-chef operation in a forlorn part of Rte 32 just across from Fort Meade.  But the "authentic" menu has an array of amazing dishes from simple vegetable platters to complex whole poultry that need to be ordered two or three days in advance.

The bottom line is that every single dish that we have eat at Grace Garden would be on the table of the best Chinese in Howard County.  We really like places like Noodles Corner in Columbia, but Grace Garden's dishes are simultaneously more subtle and more flavorful.

Cantonese braised chicken
What was the dish that just happened to be served while we looking at the menu?  Cantonese braised chicken -- chunks of meat on the bone served with a sauce made from onions and garlic.  Like all the Grace Garden dishes, there is no gloppy sauce.  It clung to the meat, and there was just a little bit that I obsessively tried to spoon onto rice from the bottom of the bowl.

The braised chicken is an absolute winner, even for Mrs. HowChow who doesn't normally want to nibble meat off a bone.  It was a random win for us, although I later realized that it is repeated rave on the Chowhound thread that first introduced me to Grace Garden.

Seriously, read that thread or my old posts about Grace Garden.  Pick a few dishes that interest you.  Tofu pockets?  Eggplant with plum sauce?  Pork and squid stir fry?  Then just drive to Odenton.  It's a basic place -- maybe a half-dozen tables and photos on the wall that I think were provided by diners who love the restaurant.  You go for the food.

This is part of a Worth Repeating series highlighting dishes and places that you should hear about even though they aren't new.  I'm suggesting sandwiches, Cuban pork chops, ground chuck and other items that have been HowChow favorites for years.

I think Grace Garden is incredibly kid-friendly.  There is no atmosphere to the place except for the friendliness of the chef and his family.  That's a great atmosphere for kids.  No one is going to be disturbed by children at your table.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Worth Repeating: Cuba De Ayer Has Jazzed Up The Joint, Kept The Pork Chop And Cubano

Pork chops with beans, plantains and onions at Cuba De Ayer
Cuba De Ayer is an absolutely new restaurant, but the Burtonsville place still goes the pork chop that makes me long for Miami.

Cuba De Ayer renovated last year.  It both doubled in size and amped up its glitz with a shiny new bar and dining room that make it a classic of our indigenous architecture: Strip mall on the outside, fancy restaurant inside.

On our last visit, we ate exactly the same meal that I think we had the two times before.  A Cuban sandwich for Mrs. HowChow and a pork chop for me.  They're both exceptional comfort food.  The sandwich comes hot off the press so the cheese melts into the pork, ham, mustard and pickle.  The pork chop comes on a plate so crowded that Mrs. HowChow was shocked that I could finish it.

You get beans and rice, sweet plantains ("maduros"), and a cup of sweet caramelized onions.   Plus two thin-pork chops that remind me of casual meals in Miami 20 years ago.  The seared edges have crunch and caramelized pieces.  It's super-tender, and it's easy to slice into pieces and pair up with alternating beans, plantains and onions.

I keep ordering the pork chop because that's the flavor of Miami 1994 to me.  But it's worth a visit even if you can't share the nostalgia.  I'm sure much of Cuba de Ayer's menu is delicious.  Mojitos and cuban coffee make every meal more fun.

This is part of a Worth Repeating series highlighting dishes and places that you should hear about even though they aren't new.  I'm suggesting sandwiches, Chinese, ground chuck and other items that have been HowChow favorites for years.

The strip of Rte 198 in Burtonsville has a series of restaurants that make it worth the one-exit drive south of the Howard County border.  It's a slight off drive because you exit, go around a traffic circle, and then drive the old road that parallels Rte 29.  But once you turn right onto Rte 198, you can choose from Mexican (Chapala), Ethiopian (Soretti's), Afghan (a version of Maiwand Kabob), and more on your way to Cuba De Ayer.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Worth Repeating: I Make The Best Burgers In Howard County, And You Can As Well

The Secret Is Meat From Laurel Meat Market
I make the best burger in Howard County.

I don't want to pompous.  I just want to catch your attention because you can make the best burger too. The secret is Laurel Meat Market, and I don't want them to be a secret from anyone.

Laurel Meat Market on Main Street is just across the line from Howard County, but it's a trip worth making because their ground chuck should be the star of your summer grilling.  They grind at the shop. You're not eating industrial product.  You're buying real meat that you can turn into special burgers one-third of a pound at a time.

You have two ways to do that.

First, you have the simple lesson from Mrs. HowChow's family.  Dice a clove of garlic and handful of onion for each burger.  Briefly mix them into the meat -- but don't press around enough to compact the meat.  If you make one-third-pound patties, those will grill up juicy and with more flavor than even many of the gourmet burger restaurants around.

Second, you can go crazy.  Laurel Meat Market will regrind your beef with spicy sausage or bacon.  The sausage-beef combo is called "firecracker mix," and either sausage or bacon will create burgers that will make your guests sit up straight.  With two or three parts beef to one part sausage or bacon,  I have gotten raves every single time -- even from folks who say that they normally try to avoid bacon.

If you want to get even-more specific, you can buy whole steaks at Laurel and ask them to grind your personal blend.  In 2011, Matt wrote me about how he created custom blends of chuck, sirloin and bacon.

Whatever you do, it's the meat that makes the best burger.  I'm sure of that -- and of the value of good buns from Wegmans or the Breadery (which occasionally makes the best hot dog buns that you'll ever find).  Honestly, you can probably do as well with the butchers at J.W. Trueth in Oella or Boarman's in Highland.  I have just never asked those folks to do any special blends.

This is part of a Worth Repeating series highlighting dishes and places that you should hear about even though they aren't new.  I'm suggesting sandwiches, Chinese, Cuban sandwiches, and other items that have been HowChow favorites for years.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Worth Repeating: Shin Chon Garden's Korean Barbecue Makes One Of Our Favorite Meals

Korean Barbecue At Shin Chon Garden
I have written so much about Shin Chon Garden's barbecue that I posted step-by-step instructions for enjoying the thin-sliced pork and beef, but this is the ultimate "Worth Repeating" post because we keep coming back for more.

Barbecue with Korean experts.  Barbecue on a double-date with newbies.  Barbecue with a table of parents and kids who alternate between eating and walking around the table.

Shin Chon Garden in Ellicott City has provided many different nights of fun, and they all come from the grills built into most tables.  I already posted the 2012 step-by-step instructions so that any table of four can order and enjoy pork belly or beef (the thin-cut bulgogi or the rib-meat kalbi).  You'll get the table filled with panchan, the free side dishes of vegetable, pickle and other dishes that make Korean barbecue such a riot of flavors.

Panchan - the small side dishes
Those flavors are my big argument today.  We go back to Shin Chon because the food is so fresh and so full of variation -- the slightly-charred chew of the thin-cut meat, the fresh crunch of sprouts and lettuce, the spicy tang of kimchi and other pickled vegetables, the smooth creaminess of the potato salad panchan.  And don't forget the steamed egg -- a piping hot, steamed, scrambled egg that comes along with the barbecue and provides a warm, rich contrast.

The big tables make for fun evenings.  It's social to share the dishes, to serve each other meat as it cooks, to compare notes on new panchan.  We have had terrific times eating, talking and having either a Korean beer or unfiltered wine called makkoli.

The best part is that you control everything.  Shin Chon lays all this food out on your table, and you decide what you want to eat.  Sample everything.  Make the lettuce rolls with rice, shredded greens, meat and spicy sauce.  Pair up the dishes that you enjoy.  Pass on the handful that aren't your favorites.

That control is why I think Korean barbecue is so welcoming to new people.  Meat, vegetables, pickles and rice are such American standards that I think most people can find ways to eat themselves happy at Shin Chon.  Then when you're experienced, you can try variations like the noodle dish chapchae or regal your vegan friends with vegetarian bi bim bop.  I enjoy many other Korean restaurants on Rte 40, but Shin Chon has called us back again and again.

This is part of a Worth Repeating series highlighting dishes and places that you should hear about even though they aren't new.  I'm suggesting sandwiches, Chinese, ground chuck and other items that have been HowChow favorites for years.

Seriously, there is no restaurant in Howard County that we enjoy more than Shin Chon.  Meals are surprisingly reasonable when you realize that we rarely order appetizers or dessert.  The price for the barbecue includes all the panchan, and we have long social meals where we leave stuffed but not weighted down.  It's a bit of lean meat and a ton of vegetables.  If you're thinking about Korean, definitely check out the recent step-by-step post about Lighthouse Garden or scan all the posts about Korean food.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Jailbreak Is Brewing In Laurel, Shows Sun Video; Remember HoCo Beer Week Starts April 1

Luke Lavoie of the Sun has posted a new video reporting that Jailbreak Brewery in Laurel has started to brew its first run.  They're fermenting six beers.  That follows an earlier Sun video where Justin Bonner, one of the owner, talked about their plans while folks brewed in his backyard.

Jailbreak Brewery and the equally new Black Eyed Susan Brewery in Columbia are taking advantage of new Howard County laws that will let them serve drinkers from their brewing sites.  As I wrote in January, they're both looking for partners to serve food -- probably food trucks or similar folks who can bring some hot stuff that goes well with beer.

This is perfect timing to remind folks that Howard County Beer Week starts on April 1.  If you like brews, there will be a restaurant, bar or liquor store hosting something that interests you.

Worth Repeating: Bon Fresco's London Broil Sandwich, Still Undefeated, Still The Champion

London broil sandwich at Bon Fresco
Bon Fresco Sandwich Bakery in Columbia has changed very little since it first opened five years ago, and it was a prime inspiration for these "Worth Repeating" posts.

Terrific breads baked in the store.  A menu of sandwiches with pork, turkey and cold cuts.  Small, exception side dishes like the potato salad.

They were there in 2009.  They're there today.  I had raved about Bon Fresco in the first few years, and I hadn't posted -- even though it remains one of the places that we go when we need a guaranteed pick-me-up. Takeout dinners in the middle of the week.  A nice lunch in the midst of doing errands along Snowden River Parkway.

Through it all, I have always had the London broil.

Thin-sliced beef paired with fresh greens, a slice of cheese, and I think some house-made sauce that may have red onions and something like a mayo.  The ciabatta bread makes every sandwich special at Bon Fresco.  It is the perfect crunch and chew, and I have loved it with the "Capri" sandwich of Italian meats and with sandwiches of turkey or roasted vegetables.

But I come back to the London broil.  The rich, meaty flavor just makes a perfect sandwich.  I keep looking for something new on the menu, then coming back to London broil because it is incredibly filling and satisfying.  None of the post-lunch guilt you can get when a cheesesteak or an oversized hoagie becomes a lump in your stomach.  That's because Bon Fresco really cares about those ingredients.  Everything is fresh.  Everything is delicious, and they put that together for a sandwich that I don't think has a rival anywhere around.

This is part of a Worth Repeating series highlighting dishes and places that you should hear about even though they aren't new.  I'm suggesting sandwiches, Chinese, ground chuck and other items that have been HowChow favorites for years.

One change at Bon Fresco is that you need to ask for a side dish and pay extra.  I think it is a quarter.  Whatever they charge, you shouldn't skip the potato salad.  Creamy, but tasting entirely of potato.  It's a terrific side and another reason why Bon Fresco is one of the best restaurants in Howard County -- let alone one of the best sandwiches.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Petit Louis In Columbia Gets A Baltimore Review

The new Petit Louis in Columbia got its first real attention -- a review by Richard Gorelick of the Sun.  He thinks it holds up to its established sibling in Roland Park.  He recommends a lentil salad, the escargot, the roasted chicken and more.

Like Gorelick, I have loved the takeout / eat-in counter that the Foreman-Wolf team opened next to Petit Louis.  Le Comptoir does incredible desserts, and they have sandwiches, coffee and breads as well.  You should really check it out -- especially paired with a walk around the lake.

Worth Repeating: Sysco Discount In Elkridge For A Chef's Coat And All Your Kitchen Supplies

Chef's coats for about $35 at Sysco
Sometimes, this doesn't feel like a blog.  The blog format feels closest to a diary -- posts linked to a specific day.  New day means new stuff.

But lots of good stuff doesn't change, and the truth is that we go back for food we like.  So we'll often eat somewhere, and I'll know that I already posted about this burger, this restaurant, etc.

One day, I may follow smart people like our local Strobist who rethought his site more like a portal than a last-post-on-top format.  But HowChow is a hobby so I barely keep up with posting, let alone executing a redesign.

So let me repeat myself.  You haven't all been reading since 2008, and you all certainly can't remember every post.  And there are local places worth a second visit -- a call back for HowChow and a call for you to check them out.

So what's coming in the "Worth Repeating" series?
Monday: Bon Fresco's London broil sandwich
Tuesday: Shin Chon's Korean barbecue
Wednesday: The best burger in Howard County
Thursday: Cuba De Ayer's pork chop and Cuban sandwich
Friday: The best Chinese restaurant around
Today, think about buying a chef's coat.  They're about $35 at the Sysco Discount in Elkridge.  The store on U.S. 1 is a resource for large-package food from pasta to cheese to canned vegetables.  I don't memorize prices enough to know the value, but they have huge cans of tomato sauce, pizza sauce, chili peppers, spices, and more.

It's also a unique option for outfitting your kitchen.  Pots, bowls, knives, graters.  These are the well-priced reasons that folks like Mark Bittman recommend that you shop at restaurant supply stores.  Earlier this month, I got a pair of tongs for about $3 that beat anything I could buy in a fancy kitchen store.  I had my eye on a mallet to pound chicken breasts.

But the real fun was that I bought a chef's coat.  Mrs. HowChow hosted a baby shower for our friend, and I cooked and catered.  The coat helped change me from just a husband hanging around a ladies shower.  Well, the coat and a name tag that said "Agador Spartacus." ("It's the shoes.")  The coat was amusing to the women who knew me, and it was convincing to those who didn't -- and who asked if I cooked professionally.  Either way, I think it helped make the guest comfortable that I didn't need to be included while they ate and talked.  Plus, it kept me from slopping pesto on my clothes.

One other great use of the Sysco store is if you're planning for a party.  Table cloths, aluminum serving dishes, and other party supplies can cost a fortune at a supermarket.  In my original Sysco post, I highlighted paper plates, napkins, catering trays, and other items that would be great if you're hosting a party or running a picnic as the weather improves.

One warning about the Sysco parking lot:  The flea market next to the Sysco is open on Saturdays.  Or is it both weekend days?  I am sure about Saturdays, and I am sure that the few parking spaces fill fast.  Be ready to wait.  Consider looking for slots in the back.  Or even watch for a Sysco employee who comes out and waves you to park on the curb.  That's what I did on my last visit.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Paper Towel Tour: Grilled Ribs In Savage Start My Summer Search For U.S. 1 Barbeques

Ribs -- costillas de res -- from the food truck at Chesapeake Supply
Here comes the season of oil drum grills along U.S. 1.

As I have said before, the hip dining option for Howard County -- if there were a Lonely Planet Guide to this county -- would be the taco trucks and open grills that run from Laurel to Elkridge.  Grilled ribs.  Grilled chicken.  A mix of Latin side dishes.  You eat for $10, and you get the char and savory grease of a filling, authentic meal.

This is going to be my project for the summer.  I'm calling it my Paper Towel Tour because you'll want a roll in your car if you follow along.

I started on one of the first warm Saturdays with a stop in Savage -- a food truck dragging a black metal grill in the parking lot of Chesapeake Supply & Equipment Co.  I ordered the ribs.  These are not the fall-off-the-bone ribs that Mrs. HowChow prefers.  These are flanken-style ribs cut across the bone, often called "costillas de res" on Spanish signs.  You get strips of meat each studded with three or four pieces of bone.

The truck and grill
This is gnaw and bite work, and they were really good.  The fire gives the meat a slight char, and the marbled cut stays moist even cooked through.  I pulled chucks of meat away from the bone and wrapped them in thick pieces of corn tortilla.

The Paper Towel Tour will probably turn on side dishes.  I've eaten similar ribs at a bunch of grills over the years -- including a different stand set up in the same parking lot four years ago.  So far, they have all been delicious, but I'm not sure that I could distinguish the meats several weeks apart.

The real attention-grabbers are the side dishes.  Sometimes, you just get boring rice and beans, once even a supermarket tortilla.  In contrast, the truck at Chesapeake Supply put on a pretty good show.  A thick tortilla that tasted hand-made to me.  A fresh, flavorful salsa of tomato, onion and cilantro.  Those both seemed special.  I ate the red beans and the yellow rice, although they probably left some room for another truck to take the lead.

I mean -- I need a reason to stop five or six times for grilled ribs this summer.  If this first truck was perfect, there wouldn't be a need for a Paper Towel Tour.  And where would the fun be in that?

Who can offer advice for a Paper Towel Tour?  The Chesapeake lot is on the west side of U.S. 1 between Rte 175 and Rte 32.  I know there are two similar trucks south of there -- including one that I often see smoking just north of Rte 32.  I will need to work north to Elkridge as well, including a return trip to see if there is still a grill in the Mel's Liquor's parking lot in Jessup on Rte 175.  Can anyone recommend a favorite?  Or recommend a dish other than the costillas de res?

(Update: Kevlar51 is right in his comment below that the plastic forks don't really hold up.  If you're amused, consider buying a titanium spork -- like the TOAKS Titanium Spork that I bought on Amazon.  I keep one in my work bag, and I have used it many times when I ended up somewhere with lunch, but not cutlery.)

Grill Truck at Chesapeake Supply & Equipment Co.
8366 Washington Boulevard (U.S. 1)
Savage, MD 20763

NEAR: Chesapeake Supply is on U.S. 1 between Rte 175 and Rte 32.  It is on the west side of the road.  When I went past, there was another grill truck on the east side of U.S. 1 a little south of Chespaeake.  I look for these grill trucks on the weekend, but they may be out weekdays during good weather as well.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

First Thoughts On White Oak Tavern: Some Real Success And Warmer Seasons On The Way

White Oak's burger, fries and housemade ketchup
MEMO
To: Richard Gorelick, Baltimore Sun
Date: March 20, 2014

We had a fun night at White Oak Tavern, but we hope that you'll let them get a few more months under their belts before you visit.

White Oak is new Ellicott City restaurant that aims to celebrate local farms, seasonal food, and craft beers.  It's a friendly place, newly-renovated with wood and stone and newly-joined into the "farm to table" trend.  It's a smart place with real ambition.

There's nothing better than meeting a restaurant that wants to show off its wares.  I read the beer list, and I couldn't pick between two.  The waitress went straight to offering tastes of both.  Two tastes.  Both excellent beer.  Both described perfectly.  And one was just wrong.  I clearly don't like beers with "caramel."  I ended up with a hoppy, bitter IPA that absolutely made my meal.

The fun parts of our meal were corn bread, a burger and a great dessert.  The menu has small plates and entrees.  They're trying for seasonal food.  They're trying for local farms.  They're trying to be unique.  The corn bread comes in a dense, moist wedge sparked up by a thin layer of melted cheese.  The burger comes with house-made ketchup, a tangy sauce, and Atwater's brioche roll that made it stand out.

"Cookies and Cream"
All those make White Oak a definite place to check out -- especially if you want to try 30 taps of craft beers with good food to go along.  Folks are guaranteed wings, burgers and hearty fare that's a thoughtful step above most places.  They should seek out the kitchen's special effort -- like extra sauce on that burger.  We just want you and your Sun colleagues to hold off a few months so that White Oak can work out what it means when the waitress says "farm to table" and the menu has entrees in the 20s.

Mid-winter is never a fair time to judge a seasonal restaurant, especially one that wants to thrive on Maryland produce.  On the winter menu, the only vegetables on the small plate menu were deep-fried mushrooms, so the farm product that drew us in was a beet salad that turned out to be a mistake.  Cubed beets.  Slivered fennel.  Huge chunks of soft onion.  Oranges and goat cheese, all with a cup of quinoa dumped alongside.

My fear is that a real restaurant reviewer would stop in his tracks.  Nothing held the salad together.  The flavor was flat and bland.  The fennel was too small to crunch.  The onion so big that it felt sad.  I want to see more quinoa in the world, but the next menu will hopefully edit that salad.  My hope is that spring and summer will bring vegetables so delicious that White Oak can really put them front and center.  Maybe the vegetables listed as "ala carte" are special enough be like small plates that we have had Pure Wine Cafe or Woodberry Kitchen.  We realized afterwards that we might have enjoyed kale or broccolini.

It takes ambition to be something special, and it takes time to work that ambition into meals like Woodberry and 8407 Kitchen Bar where this "farm to table" trend makes drama from simple ingredients.  While we're waiting, I'm going back to White Oak for more dessert.  We had a "Cookies and Cream."  That's vanilla ice cream served with dark gingerbread cookies.  Ice cream from South Mountain Creamery in Middletown.  Cookies made with real ingredients that leave threads of ginger and a deep, intense flavor.

We both agreed that White Oak's cookies ranked up with Le Comptoir, which makes many of the best desserts around.  If anything, we'd want them notched into the ice cream so we could pick them up for dipping -- rather than lined with chocolate sauce and put under the ice cream.

White Oak is a cool place, and it's definitely worth seeking out on Rte 40.  I want success for this round of new restaurants that want to be special enough to draw diners from across the county and reviewers from Baltimore -- White Oak, Gadsby's Bar American, the Highland Inn, and Petit Louis.  I want to give them time to do all that work.

Could someone explain the allure of beer lists on televisions?  Kloby's Smokehouse has them.  White Oak has two in the dining room.  I don't have young eyes anymore, but I can't read them across the room.  Even when I can, it is just a name.  White Oak had a terrific two-page beer list with a paragraph on each beer.  The descriptions helped me pick -- and made me want to order more.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Ribs And Chicken Combo At RG's BBQ Grill

Ribs & chicken from RG's BBQ Grill
The chicken may cost a few dollars more at RG's BBQ Grill than your supermarket rotisserie display, but you should check the Laurel joint for takeout because you get their sauce as part of the deal.

Takeout can be an important tool when we don't have time to cook, but I try to take out wisely because it can get pricey fast.  My newest find has been been the chicken-and-ribs platter from RG'S BBQ Grill in Laurel because it's easily three or four meals if you extend it out.

RG's looks like a shack on U.S. 1, but its kitchen tastes like it has ambition.  They make their own sauces, their own pickles, some absolutely delicious sides like greens, beans, and corn bread.  I have already raved about a special like the lamb, but the basics shine just as well.

For about $20, I buy a half chicken and half rack of ribs.  They're both moist, flavorful meat coated in RG's zesty sauce.  While I wait, I fill up two or three more small containers of the sauce.  I split between mild and medium.  The medium is zesty enough that I have left the spicy sauce to the true heat seekers.

Either way, the platter delivers.  The first meal is easy because you get two side dishes.  So dine down on greens, corn bread and maybe most of the ribs.  Then cut up the chicken to pack for lunch.  We get two big lunches if I package chicken with some other leftovers -- a little rice or vegetables, maybe just some cut up vegetables.

A little leftover can even be extended into a fourth meal.  Maybe the risotto with rib meat like I made from Gourmet Griller's earlier this winter.  Maybe a barbecued chicken salad sandwich if I reserve a few ounces of the breast meat.

I have options because RG's BBQ Grill does such a good job.  It is worth a stop and few extra dollars because that meat blows away anything you could grab off the heat trays at a supermarket.  The sauce is my favorite around, and you can just taste the complexity and the care that they put into it.  It's so good that I need to quote Todd Kliman so that I don't just plagiarize him:
[T]he sauce is a pitch-perfect balance of tanginess, sweetness and heat. That sauce is so addicting, you probably will end up forgiving the drier patches of an otherwise tasty smoked chicken and want to either pour it over everything else or even, as my friend said, drink it plain.
This is restaurant food that you're just lucky enough to take home in clamshell tray.  You can take home the ribs and chicken and make them your own.

RG"s BBQ Grill has tables so you can eat there.  It's counter service.  Very casual, very friendly.  Any other great takeout that you recommend?  I'm in the market for weeknight help.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Le Comptoir: Every Sweet Is Among The Best Desserts In Howard County, Every County

Cookies! Even the cookies are exceptional.
Petit Louis is certainly a sweet spot, and they're still working hard to hit the sweet spot in every aspect.

I can't talk enough about the desserts -- both in the restaurant and at its casual counter Le Comptoir.  We have eaten almost everything that they offer.  Probably a dozen trips in a single month -- mostly to carry out a box of cookies or pastries.

I think that I'm being even-keeled when I say that I have eaten 15 different cookies, eclairs and pastries and every one ranks among the best desserts around.  Just last month, I emphasized how many great sweets are available in Howard County.  But Petit Louis and Le Comptoir immediately leapt up to the absolute top tier, and you can't check it out fast enough.

Macarons with a changing run of imaginative flavors.  Eclairs and financiers that shame regular pastries.  Tiny fruit gels that are brilliant $1 bites.  Cookies that even taste exceptional.  Mrs. HowChow almost passed on the chocolate cookie after we walked around the lake.  How special can a cookie be?  It turns out that they can be amazing with a crisp exterior and a soft inside, rich with chocolate and perfect with coffee (and with a second cookie like the rosemary-scented heart-shaped one).

And don't get me started about the macarons.  These trendy French pastries are basically sandwich cookies with merengues on the outside and a flavored filling.  We have been infatuated for several years.  I have carried macarons home from New York City.  But I have never had better ones that Le Comptoir.  The merengues are perfectly dry without cracking.  The flavors are fresh and intense, strong with banana, peanut butter, pistachio-grapefruit, etc.  They're the symbol of what I love about Petit Louis' sweets -- simple desserts that are so clearly not simple to create.

Now, a friend told me that he thinks Petit Louis became Howard County's best restaurant as soon as it opened.  I'm excited if that is true.  It may have been a mistake for us to eat there on a Monday night, but we were celebrating that day.  Five occupied tables couldn't fill the room with any energy, and we got a waiter who was growing into the role.

As it was, we unintentionally ordered two fried dishes.  I asked if the beignet was like the doughy fritter that you'd see in New Orleans.  Now, I realize that the waiter's nod was probably based on politeness, not agreement.  I got shrimp and vegetable tempura.  Terrific tempura, but that wasn't what I had wanted.  Then we got surprised again when Mrs. HowChow's desire for fresh fish got her fried cod.  Again, real skill to fry that perfectly.  Just not what she was looking for.  I remember servers at other Foreman-Wolf restaurants, and I think they would have led us to dishes that we wanted.

Of course, the entire meal leads you to dessert, so you go out on a bang without any risk of translation.  We went with Gateau Aux Fruits Exotiques and Pot de Creme Au Chocolat.  They're intense flavors, rich but light enough that we walked out smiling and bubbly.  Honestly, the fruits aren't that exotic -- passion fruit, coconut and pineapple.  It's talent that intensifies the flavors in layers of cake and cream.

As I'm sitting here trying to explain why we're au septieme ciel over Petit Louis' sweets, my best explanation is that they don't taste of butter and sugar.  You can always win over a table with dessert heavy with cream or sharp with sweetness.  Each Petit Louis dessert leads with a flavor -- a fruit, an herb, that chocolate.  They run from crunchy to creamy to gelled, but they each taste fresh and unique.

Seriously, you need to go check this out.  Petit Louis serves high end French dinners, and the Foreman-Wolf team have been spectacular to offer you smaller options -- maybe just dessert in the restaurant, definitely sandwiches, quiche, coffee and sweets as takeout or sit down at the casual Le Comptoir next door.

A bunch of new restaurants have opened over the past two months.  Practically, it will take a while for us to try them all.  But I'm also being slow because I want these places to get up and running.  I'm confident that the Petit Louis folks want Columbia to rival the Baltimore location, and I think that lakefront dining room will be a very special place.  One meal shouldn't define any of the new endeavors.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Tap The Keg: Howard County Beer Week Starts April 1 -- Bars, Restaurants And Liquor Stores

Craft beer takes over Howard County in early April with a week -- actually, eight days -- of special tastings and menus built around interesting Maryland brews.

Howard County Beer Week runs April 1 to 8.  The organizers have recruited a different restaurant every day -- along with liquor stores and some home brewers -- to celebrate local beers.  Go for tastings of rare beers at TBonz Taphouse in Ellicott City or a beer brunch at Kloby's Smokehouse or a special menu at White Oak Tavern.

Check the Beer Week's Web site for all the featured events.  The list includes a cross-section of Howard County's thoughtful casual joints.  These are all places where you'll get unusual, interesting food focused on the great barbecue, great burgers, great burritos part of the spectrum.  And, of course, you'll get great beer.

Howard County is a great place for craft beer.  There are so many great options that my 2012 post about "Liquor In The Suburbs" does a good job, but still misses some new locals like Ale House Columbia.  But you could scan all the HowChow posts about beer or concentrate on checking out the local breweries that should open this spring.