Almost Valentine’s Day, yeah, yeah, I know. I got nothin’. While couples are gazing into each other’s eyes over champagne and oysters, some of us will be ordering from the singles menu. And so, a love letter to food, which I adore and suffer from and play head games with as I would any bad boyfriend. In fact I just gained weight while visiting Africa, an accomplishment few can claim. Now back in the bosom of Baltimore I offer a Valentine to favorites from local eateries, which I seem to love as much for what they remind me of as what they are.
1. Huevos rancheros, Atwater’s
Of all influences I absorbed during the 20 years I lived in Austin, Texas, none has been more abiding than my passion for Mexican breakfast dishes, and I am always on the lookout for reasonable facsimiles. When my friend Ken was recovering from surgery in a rehab up north near the Beltway, I used to stop at the Falls Road location of Atwater’s to bring him a latte on the way to visit and thus came to try the non-traditional version of huevos rancheros served there. Three, count ’em three, fried eggs served on corn tortillas with a thick, mild red chile sauce and queso blanco. No refried beans, no potatoes, no jalapenos, no ranchero sauce for that matter, but satisfying in its own way. Or maybe I’m just getting soft in my old age.
2. Cheese steak, The Real Thing, One World
Cheese steak was the signature food of my first husband Tony, born and raised in Philly. He used to go to the Italian market on South 9th Street with his grandma, and if he was good they would stop afterwards for a steak from Pat’s King of Steaks. Indoctrinated early in our relationship into this wonder of the junk-food world, I said farewell to Tony by ordering 100 cheese steaks from a sub shop in Austin for his memorial service in 1994. As you may know, Pat’s in South Philly is across the street from another cheese steak stand called Geno’s, and each has its own passionate fan club. The guy who owns The Real Thing on York Road in Towson used to cook at Geno’s, but we try not to hold that against him. And call me crazy but my daughter Jane and I like the vegetarian version at One World.
3. Tart frozen yogurt, TCBY Belvedere Square, Evergreen Cafe in warmer months
Probably due to my mother’s overzealous policing of my youthful eating habits, I have a kind of PTSD that prevents me from enjoying desserts. Fortunately frozen yogurt was invented after I escaped my mother’s surveillance. My first bite was a life-changing encounter with creamy cold sweetness for me, spawning an immediate fantasy of opening my own fro-yo store. Early frozen yogurt tasted like real yogurt, but soon a bland replica of soft ice cream took over. Only in the past few years has yogurty frozen yogurt come back. R.I.P. Mr. Yogato of Fells Point, a kooky, endearing spot where I first encountered the new “classic tart” flavor. Fortunately it has now caught on widely.
4. Burnt pizza crust, Joe Squared
A person from the greater New York metropolitan area does not love many pizzas found elsewhere. I make an exception for Joe Squared, because I am crazy for foods that are slightly burned or blackened, from the dark brown potato chip to the crisp slice of bacon to the well-done rye toast to the square-shaped, char-flecked pizza crust of North Avenue. Several decades ago I was making breakfast for a bunch of kids and I burned the waffles. While everyone else was whining, little Katie Walsh slapped butter and syrup on hers and announced, “I like it better this way.” Happy Valentine’s Day wherever you are, Katie.
5. Dosa masala, Pavan Foods
This is an Indian crepe filled with spiced potato cubes and served with coconut chutney and a piquant, orange-fuschia, house-made relish called “carrot pickle.” I am not a devotee of Indian food — though Pavan Foods, on Harford Road near the Beltway, comes closest to changing that — but oddly enough this particular love goes back to my Mexican breakfast fetish. There was a street vendor on the Drag in the front of the University of Texas who sold, for 50 cents, small, tightly rolled, almost-mashed potato tacos with a bright green, very hot, fresh tasting salsa. The delivery guy at my office shared my taste for them and used to bring a couple in for me most mornings. Happy Valentine’s Day wherever you are, Stewart Mihalik.
6. Tuna sandwich, Trinacria
In 1976, I had a tuna sandwich at a bakery in Nice and I have never been the same. The tuna was made with a vinaigrette, not mayonnaise, and was mixed with olives, anchovies, capers, and tomato, served on a crusty French roll. I am on a lifelong quest for American cousins of this tuna sandwich and there is a distant one at the Trinacria deli counter down on Paca Street. It’s on focaccia, contains anchovy, and is perhaps a little on the oily side, but it’s reason enough to visit this little store and get some of their cheap wine, great olives, and Jane’s favorite shape of pasta, the long folded corkscrews called fusili lunghi bucati.
7. Manhattan, Owl Bar
There are not many cocktails that can provide a night’s entertainment in a single glass. But as I have discovered during the pilgrimages occasionally made by University of Baltimore faculty members to this venerable watering hole in the Belvedere Hotel, the Manhattan at the Owl Bar does the trick. Though I usually go for a gin martini if I’m going to be drinking straight hard liquor, a waiter there once suggested, while I was dithering over my drink order, that I try the Manhattan. I didn’t even know what it was, but I’m suggestible when it comes to intoxicants. Which is not always a good thing, but was in this case.
8. Miso soup, packaged mix from Asia Foods
I will definitely be visiting Asia Foods on York Road on Valentine’s Day because the lady who runs it is pretty much the nicest person in Baltimore. Lately I have been making up reasons to go there just to have her beam at me and exclaim about my “kooking.” One of the things I regularly buy is miso soup mix, because if there is a 25-calorie cure not just for hangovers but for all manner of emptiness, coldness and despair, miso soup is it. I started making miso soup when Tony got sick back in the late 80s, the Dallas Buyers Club years when there really wasn’t much you could do for AIDS but take worthless drugs and try acupuncture and macrobiotics. And a cheese steak from time to time. But Valentine’s Day is no time to dwell on lost husbands of yesteryear. This is the miso soup of today.