Issue: October 2000
Beyond the Beaten Table

Boat show goers will no doubt take advantage of the many steak and seafood houses that Annapolis has to offer. But what if all you want is a bit of bo luc lacor or a touch of taco loco? Read on.

 

     If one more tinted-window steakhouse opens up in Annapolis, I swear I’m going to join forces with those “Eat mor chikin” cows. Really. It has gotten so bad recently, I heard that someone actually opened a tinted-window steakhouse inside of another tinted-window steakhouse. Okay, I didn’t actually hear that, but it wouldn’t surprise me if I did.

     For the record, I do enjoy the darkened chic of a good steakhouse, occasionally, and would happily recommend some of the good ones in downtown Annapolis to those seeking a juicy prime rib and a nine-dollar glass of Burgundy. But this town has so much to offer in the way of culinary diversity, why stop at American meat and potatoes? There’s Indian, Chinese and Mexican. There’s Greek, Italian and Irish. You name the ethnic cuisine, we’ll name the address.

     The following restaurants are some of our favorites, although by no means are we hitting every good ethnic place in town. Start with one of these, then work your way outward in an expanding spiral of discovery. Annapolis is indeed a small town, but it’s also a state capital possessing a surprisingly broad range of culinary tastes. To wit . . .

 

     A Rose for Everybody

     La Rose de Saigon at 960 Bay Ridge Road (in the BayForestCenter, where Edgewood Road joins Bay Ridge Road) has been serving traditional Chinese and Vietnamese food since 1996. It’s the kind of strip mall surprise you could easily pass without noticing. But step inside and you’ll find well appointed booths with comfortable seats and thick, marble-top tables that appear to have been in place since the big bang. The walls are covered in rough fabric, accented by traditional Chinese lacquer paintings and assorted statuary. Adjacent to the dining room is a small bar that nonetheless serves some huge cocktails-like Suffering Bastards in those tiki-head goblets that still haunt my memories of teen vacations.

     Patronize this unprepossessing restaurant long enough and you will come to appreciate its wonderful cast of characters: there’s Frankie, the wizened waiter who’ll be glad to share his world-view with you; there are the cooks, misters Fung, Chau and Manuel; and there are the owners, the always gracious Suu Vo and his wife Lihn, whose son Tony Vo serves as manager. They’re all part of what makes La Rose so irresistible.

     Irresistible too is the fish sauce that goes over the Saigon Crepes, a dish made with two large rice crepes wrapped around shrimp, pork, bean sprouts and onions. “I eat that way too much,” says Tony Vo during a tour of the kitchen, a spotless symphony of steel woks and gas flames. “And the fish sauce? With the pork noodle salad or the beef salad, I just pour it all over the place. It’s unbelievably good.” Believe it. This light, tangy sauce, which doesn’t taste too fishy, goes over many of the Vietnamese dishes, and true addicts might be observed drinking it like tea.

     Besides the crepes, another popular Vietnamese entree is heo nuong cha-grilled pork marinated in honey, five spices and garlic. The five-spice mixture is a house secret, but Tony is willing to lift the veil: After disappearing into a storage freezer, he returns and produces a small, dried, rust-colored flower from a species of Asian tree. The flower’s diameter is slightly larger than a quarter’s, and its leaves are like tiny, hollow canoes. The smell is piquant, hinting of licorice and chocolate. “We grind it up and use it in marinades,” says Tony. “We also drop it whole into soups to give them more flavor.” So if you taste a breath of anise or cocoa in anything at La Rose, it’s probably due to this mysterious little flower. (We later consulted our culinary encyclopedia and discovered that the “flower” was actually a pod called star anise.)

     On the Chinese side of the menu, you’ll find a lot of the standards: lo mein, vegetable stir-fries, mu-shi. These are also expertly and conscientiously prepared. The sweet and sour pork, for example, is batter fried as per the tradition, but the pork is served separate from the sauce. This is a nice touch seen with many La Rose entrees, allowing you to control the sauce-o-meter.

     La Rose’s pairing of Chinese and Vietnamese cuisines gives the diner a great chance to compare the two. They are more different than one might expect, according to Tony. “Vietnamese has almost no fat or oils and uses things like coconut and curry sauces,” he says. “It also emphasizes fish sauce as the salty seasoning. Chinese uses lots of different oils, and uses mostly soy sauce as the salty seasoning.”

     As with every good restaurant, the food is the star here. But working in the shadows and keeping the operation running is the modest, quiet but witty Suu Vo (who, during our introduction, said, “I’m the man they named Suu,” a reference to the old Johnny Cash song, “A Boy Named Sue”). Talking to him at the cash register, patrons might suspect that Suu has been in the restaurant business his whole life. Little do they know, they’re having their checks wrung up by a former news cameraman with an Emmy Award under his belt. Covering the Vietnam War for NBC News, Suu was the only person to capture film footage of the now-infamous sidewalk execution of a Vietcong officer, a grisly scene that helped turn America’s heart against the war. These days, though, he would much rather talk about Tonkin Steak than the Tonkin Resolution, quite understandably.

     La Rose de Saigon Restaurant

     960 Bay Ridge Road; 410-268-8484. Hours: Mon.–Thurs. 11:30 a.m.– 9:30 p.m.; Fri.–Sat. 11:30 a.m.–10:30 p.m.; Sun. noon–9:30 p.m. Prices: lunch $7.50–$9.50; dinner $8.50–$17.50. Visa and MasterCard accepted. Reservations requested for parties over five.

 

     One Anguri Man

     Those looking to work up an appetite and walk off their meal, may want to venture to India’s. Located about a mile from the City Dock at 257 West Street (which leads west from Church Circle), India’s Restaurant could just as well be called the Phoenix. The 1997 fire that destroyed a historic building on Main Street also burned down the IndianPalace restaurant, which had been there since 1992. Its mild-mannered owner, Suraj Kumar, decided that a fire wasn’t enough to run him or his business out of town. Instead, he moved operations to a relatively quiet part of West Street. And local murgh ke pakwaan lovers couldn’t have been more pleased.

     “All of our regular customers from IndianPalace come here now,” says Kumar, taking a break in the dining room between the lunch and dinner rushes. Business has actually picked up since the move, he says, ascribing it to two things: better parking, and even better food. The chef who trained the IndianPalace chefs is now running the kitchen at India’s. If you ever taste the chicken tikka masala here (that’s tender boneless chicken pieces broiled in the clay tandoor oven then cooked in a thick tomato, onion and butter sauce) you, too, will immediately begin sending fan mail to Mr. Sukhdev Singh. “He and I used to work together in New York,” says Kumar. “When I called him, he came down. He’s the best.” Agreed.

     The eminently likeable Kumar, along with his wife and kids, are originally from the Punjab region of India, where Kumar’s family has been farming for generations. Having gotten used to this area and the people here, however, he’s decided that Annapolis is home for good. As we chat, I take note of the white linen tablecloths and royal blue napkins. The chairs are heavy and lacquered. Indian music, played at just the right volume, sighs and jingles from speakers overhead. Light glows softly behind the full bar at the back of the dining room. A tall, strapping young lad-Kumar’s son-begins breaking down the lunch buffet.

     The buffet at India’s is one of the best bargains going, stellar all-you-can-eat lamb, chicken, beef and vegetarian dishes, plus bread cooked to order, for $6.95 per person. The buffet changes regularly and can include just about anything on the menu. You may find appetizers like anguri samosa (crisp pastry filled with mildly spiced vegetables), soups like dal shorba (made with lentils, tomatoes and specially blended herbs), tandoori specials like the incredible boti kebab (tender, fat-free lamb marinated in a rich blend of spices and broiled in the tandoor) or desserts like ras mailai (a surprisingly light, delicious and palate-cleansing cheese served cold with sweetened milk and rose water). As far as beverages go, there are several Indian choices. I highly recommend the bottomless cup of Indian tea, which is pleasantly spiced with cardamom, cinnamon and herbs and served with or without cream. Think chai from Starbucks. Then think a whole lot better.

     Kumar says that the tandoori dishes are probably the most popular, then walks me back to a very clean kitchen and introduces me to the blessed tandoor oven. It sits next to the bank of stoves and metal prep surfaces. From the outside, all you see is a big white-tiled block, about as wide as an office desk, with a round metal lid on top. Beneath the lid is the spherical red belly of the clay tandoor. Inside is a controlled, glowing mound of coals that produces enough heat to singe the eyebrows of the overly curious. Kumar has a cook prepare some naan. This is the classic Indian flatbread made by taking a lump of dough, stretching it out and flinging it right against the inside surface of the oven. The doughy disk sticks there and, within a minute or two, begins to bubble and turn brown. Kumar removes it with a four-foot-long skewer and lets it cool (and, yes, it somehow follows me home.)

     Part of what makes the tandoori so good at India’s is Kumar’s strong aversion to fat. He just doesn’t like the stuff. Rather than flavoring things with fats and oils, he trims the meats with a sort of fanaticism, then uses expertly blended seasonings, yogurts and specialized cooking processes. “Don’t just make it taste good with butter and cream and fat,” he says. “It has to be good, light and healthy. This can be done without a lot of fat, by using the proper techniques.” India’s is proof of that.

     Another thing: If you’re coming in from the boat shows, don’t worry about attire. Despite the dining room’s elegant appearance, Kumar assures us that he’s more concerned with his customers being comfortable.

     India’s Restaurant

     257 West Street; 410-263-7900. Hours: Sun.–Thurs. 11:30 a.m.–2:30 p.m. and 5–10 p.m.; Fri.–Sat. 11:30 a.m.–2:30 p.m. and 5–10:30 p.m. Prices: weekday lunch buffet $6.95; dinner $9.95–$20.95. Visa, MasterCard and American Express accepted. Reservations recommended.

 

     The Real Greek

     Like La Rose, Parthenon is a can’t-miss restaurant that is all too easy to overlook. This wonderful little Greek eatery lies in a strip mall between a laundry and a pizza shop, across the road and to the right from the BayForestCenter. Again, it doesn’t look like a whole lot from outside, but the food is consistently excellent. I’ve actually found myself digging into the doggy bag on the drive home, and I live only a mile from the place. On top of that, the dining room is clean and inviting and the staff has always been a model of quiet efficiency. Catch manager Michael Lash during a bit of downtime, which unerringly seems to come in the middle of the afternoon for most restaurateurs. His normal mode is moving effortlessly around the dining room, keeping customers happy and offering up the occasional wisecrack to regulars. (I forgot the name of the tzatziki once, and was forced to ask for “some of that cucumber stuff.” When Lash returned to the table with the tzatziki, he said, “Here’s your cucumber stuff.”)

     As good as the cucumber stuff is, Lash says that there really is not a signature dish at Parthenon. Although the lamb dishes have always been popular-particularly the oven-roasted lamb specials on the weekends-he says that customers often determine their own signature dishes. “We have mostly regulars here. People seem to pick a dish and stick with it, to the point where we’ll see a certain car pulling up out front and start preparing the meal.”

     That can mean preparing appetizers like tzatziki, or pita sandwiches with lamb, beef and pork souvlaki, as well as entrees like the half a chicken baked in garlic, lemon and oregano, or the popular vegetarian stuffed eggplant. As for myself, that usually means something like the pastitsio (a sort of Greek lasagna-macaroni noodles and seasoned beef with bechamel, topped with homemade tomato sauce) or the soutzoukakia, which consists of delicately seasoned meatballs in a homemade tomato sauce, served with string beans and a choice of gavetsi pasta or potatoes.

     From whence did all of these divine Greek recipes come? “They came from that guy’s head,” says Lash, pointing over his shoulder to Dimitrios “Jimmy” Tsiopanos, the owner and head chef at Parthenon. On this particular day, he’s also the head wall painter-in the midst of making over Parthenon’s already inviting interior. (If you haven’t been here for awhile, take note of the new white stucco walls, the new carpeting and the freshened feel of the place. While Tsiopanos is a master in the kitchen, he ain’t so bad as an interior decorator, either.)

     “How long you been cooking, Jimmy?” yells Lash.

     “How long I been cooking?” says Tsiopanos in a thick Greek accent, stopping his work to think. “Can’t remember. Thirty years. More.” Eventually Tsiopanos puts down the paint roller and joins us at the table. A spry man of middle age, with dark hair curling out from beneath a painter’s cap, Tsiopanos has an infectious happiness to him, along with bright dark eyes and an obvious love for what he does. He is a native of Kedros, a village in the Karditsa region of Greece. Many of his recipes are family ones. As for technique, Tsiopanos was educated through a job he held long ago. “Years back,” says the chef, “I used to travel as an assistant cook on a ship. We had a nice, very good chef. He taught me the basics. Over the years, I’ve worked and perfected these recipes. What I’m doing here is the real Greek. Authentic food. That’s what I’m doing here.”

     With gusto.

     Lest anyone underestimate the culinary education offered on cargo ships, remember how critical it is for the only restaurant onboard-the mess-to serve food that prevents mutinies. As they say: The most important man on any ship is its cook. And I would crew aboard the good ship Parthenon any day.

     One of the best things about the fruits of Tsiopanos’s kitchen is their subtlety of flavor. I have never felt like he was lashing me over the head with a strand of garlic, or squirting lemon juice directly down my throat. Yes, you’ll taste the herbs and spices. But they won’t wrestle you to the ground and demand cab fare home.

     “When I cook the lamb,” Tsiopanos says, “I cut it open and put fresh garlic inside. You can smell it when it’s cooking, but the lamb won’t taste like garlic. You eat here, you don’t taste the garlic, but it gives the food the taste.” I am a garlic lover in the extreme and my wife Mel isn’t. We both love Parthenon. Wasn’t it the Greeks who first venerated the notion of moderation?

     Parthenon

     907 Bay Ridge Road; 410-268-7121. Hours: Mon.–Thurs. 11 a.m.–9:30 p.m.; Fri. 11 a.m.–10 p.m.; Sat. 11:30 a.m.– 10 p.m.; closed Sunday. Prices: lunch sandwiches $4.95–$5.25; lunch entrees $3.95–$9.95; dinner entrees $8.95–$15.95. Visa, MasterCard and American Express accepted. Reservations requested for parties over six.

 

     Bravo, El Toro!

     When you walk into El Toro Bravo at 50 West Street (walk up Main Street to Church Circle and continue west on West Street), the first thing you notice is the continuous wall mural that runs throughout the place. It’s a colorful, highly stylized work depicting street scenes from a small Mexican town. Note to trivia hounds: The little restaurant depicted in the mural as Plaza Garibaldi is named for El Toro’s sister restaurant, located in the Baltimore suburb of Glen Burnie.

     But on to the food.

     I’ve always been a big fan of Mexican cuisine, and have had plenty of chances to sample some of the finest in Mexican-American cooking during my northern California years. El Toro stands right up there with the best Mexican restaurants I’ve been to-on either coast. So imagine my delight in reporting that the prices here are very, very reasonable.

     During a recent visit, Mel and I ordered our standard guacamole to go with the automatically provided tortilla chips and fresh, cilantro-infused salsa. The guac’ here is something special. Avocados are quick to betray their freshness-or lack thereof-and those used in El Toro’s guac’ taste like they were picked that morning. Mel is a true guacamole snob (she won’t eat store-bought), and says this is the best she’s ever had.

Along with the guacamole, everything else we’ve eaten at El Toro has been superb: fresh, tasty and delivered quickly. Be warned, however, that the entree plates are hotter than the summer sidewalks of Aguascaliantes. The servers usually wear oven mitts when putting food on the tables, and for a very good reason.

     Entrees themselves are listed on the menu as “dinner specials.” You’ll find the traditional Mexican mix: various types of burritos, tacos, taquitos, chimichangas and enchiladas. But there are also El Toro specialties, such as the camarones al mojo de ajo (shrimp grilled in garlic and butter, served with Spanish rice and a salad) or the steak Jalisco-a T-bone topped with grilled onions, bell peppers and tomatoes, served with Spanish rice, beans and warm tortillas. This last must be good, as it is named after Jalisco, Mexico, the hometown of Jose Aguirre, El Toro’s gentlemanly proprietor.

Aguirre joins Mel and me after we’ve demolished our plates of chicken enchiladas, rice, beef burritos, chips, salsa and tostadas. He wears a white cap, his black moustache is neatly trimmed and his eyes are dark and penetrating. He explains the secret of the three-year-old restaurant’s success. “We do everything fresh everyday, you know. Everything we do-fresh.”

     Dishes are also kept simple, which is really a function of freshness. The fresher the ingredients, the simpler the cook can afford to keep things. The guacamole, for instance, is one of the simplest recipes you can imagine. Take some fresh avocados, mash them up with a little bit of garlic, fresh cilantro and a touch of minced jalapeno, and serve. No bottled salsa, diced onion, powdered seasonings, sour cream or tomatoes are added. Just avocado and fresh herbs. The end product reminds me of Robert Motherwell in its simplicity and profundity.

     Aguirre’s long history in the restaurant business has taught him how to run a topnotch establishment. Besides good food, waiters are well dressed, neatly groomed and polite.

As with Tsiopanos, Aguirre draws many of his recipes from the family file. Some of the more notable ones include the chile rellenos and the tamales, both terrific. But this is one menu that can be roamed freely. Try the fried ice cream, take a roll in the huevos con chorizo. You will not get burned-unless you forget about the hot entree plates.

     El Toro Bravo

     50 West Street; 410-267-5949. Hours: Mon.–Fri. 11 a.m.–3 p.m. and 5–11 p.m.; Sat. noon–11 p.m.; Sun. 5–10 p.m. Prices: lunch $3.75–$5.50; dinner $5.50–$11.95. Visa, MasterCard, American Express and Discover accepted. No reservations.