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Archive for the ‘Restaurant Reviews – Hopeful Foodie Style’ Category

Where everybody knows your name.

Now that the Summer season has officially come to a close, and the joys of cider-tinged, crisp and cool Autumn are upon us, I think it’s safe to share what I spent those previous three glorious months doing: eating sugared ice out of a cup, innocently flirting with cute twenty-one-year-old proprietors and milking the pregnancy card as much as humanly possible.  Oh, yeah, and growing…..proudly and profusely!

This Summer the best place for a crazy pregnant lady such as myself and her equally-insane foodie cravings surprisingly turned out to be – you guessed it – the local snowball stand.  It’s where a gal can order her ‘Regular’ – a small egg custard – with a smile, a story and a great memory of her first pregnant Summer.  It’s a place that boasts the old-fashioned, homemade flavors of days gone by (no “SpongeBob” or “Spiderman” to be found here) as well as those mystery concoctions thought up in the ’70s that stuck to Baltimore like Old Bay Seasoning and mosquito netting to your favorite crab-eatin’ shirt (Skylite, I think, is the only flavor that actually tastes like none other than the  color blue.  We still haven’t figured out what it’s really made of; at this point, after 25 years of enjoying the mystery of it all, I’m not really sure I want to know).  As is my habit, I usually highlight establishments that offer special perks and accommodations to the food allergy crowd, but every once in a while I come across a place that is so unique, so Baltimore, so Hon that I just can’t resist.  Welcome to Walther Gardens Snow Ice. You will never forget you came.

Why?  Where else can you get a complimentary homemade pickle with your medium-sized egg custard in a Styrofoam cup? Or a free sample of the newest experimental hot sauce flavor of the week between drippy spoonfuls of strategically-layered marshmallow fluff (my personal fave is the Three Layer Yeah Baby, AKA:  Snowball Salad)? Or have a leisurely, engaging conversation on any given evening with someone who’s been an on-going customer for the past 60 or so years while sitting on a weather-aged wooden bench as the sun goes down? At this point, with all the quirky haunts we have in this great little city of neighborhoods I think I’ve found the mother lode of local ice creations.

Pickles; really?  I can’t make this shit up.

Back to the brined cucumbers  in a minute.  First – a history lesson.

Walther Gardens was founded sometime between 1880 and the beginning of the 20th century.  No joke – no one, not even the founder’s grandson, Henry “Phil” Sinsz, who runs the place today, knows exactly when the “small greenhouse  in the back” became a full-fledged neighborhood business.  The stand’s been up since around 1929 and has been serving the locals the best snowballs this side of Old Harford Rd ever since.  Sinsz’s grandfather and father (Harry and Henry, respectively) ran the fledgling business for years, providing three greenhouses full of flowers, herbs and vegetable plants to every home garden in the northeast Baltimore areas of Waltherson, Arcadia, Gardenville and Beverly Hills.  It’s a hard-to-miss place, too.  Just look for the gigantic 200-year-old pink Victorian house.  Or the shells of old greenhouses long-gone of their covers, sticking out like living skeletons from some strange plant-based Earth.  Or Phil, who wears suspenders over his stained white work shirt and always complains about what’s wrong with this country with a smile on his face and cigarette in his hand.  I call him The Jolly Curmudgeon  – and he really is, in the most endearing, shake-your-head, only-in-Baltimore kind of way.

Phil manages the plants, a wonderful array of annuals and very unique perennials, beautiful hanging vines (the Black-Eyed Susan variety is my favorite), plus veggies and herbs galore, while the “youngins'”  run the stand itself.  They would be the wonderful, yet goofy, Connor Knox and Rebecca- I’m-too-damn-preggo-brained-to-ask-for-her-last-name cute blond girl.  And no, they are not brother and sister.  Or a couple (just in case you were one of dozens to ask this Summer, or wanted to know) or Phil’s grandchildren (that one got a big, “Oh God, no!” from both of them, which, after getting to know said owner this season, makes me giggle).  Between the three of them, plus the um, interesting variety of customers that frequent the place on a daily and weekly basis, well, it makes for a pretty amusing hangout during the dog days of June, July and August.

Now, back to the pickles.

Yes, pickles.  It seems that scooping ice and pouring sugar crack into a Styrofoam cup all Summer isn’t exactly the most stimulating profession.  You need a hobby to kind of even it out.  Something else to look forward to other than the gigantic paycheck working at a snowball stand most obviously brings. Meet Connor – amateur connoisseur of the canning and pickling arts and one heck of an amusing, goofy, and very generous dude.  Connor graciously let this crazy pregnant foodie sample his homemade pickles (conveniently created in his kitchen, just next door, and stored in the stand’s back fridge) and hot sauce all throughout the season between shared comparisons of our favorite true-crime stories and serial killers (he’s working toward eventually studying criminology)  for the benefit (hopefully) of both of us.  I got my “give me something sour right now or I’ll rip your stomach out” craving of the week fulfilled and he received an honest opinion on his handcrafted goods, as only a candid, hormonally-influenced gestating wonder can provide.  Connor calls his yet-to-be branded operation Spoons and hopes to one day launch the line officially.  In the meantime, I’ve had fun being the guinea pig of such delights while hearing the hilarious “horror stories” of batches gone awry, like the failed attempt at bacon-flavored pickles, which turned out to be “…..a greasy, scary mess,” as well as the garlic salsa from hell (apparently, one must learn the difference between a bulb and a clove of garlic the hard way) – thrown away after one sample.  When Rebecca is manning, um, womanning, the stand, the stories are equally amusing, but different.  Like how she had three allergic reactions in one week and ended up in the hospital while on vacation with the same friend (prompting me to question whether or not she’s suspected said buddy has it out for her life).  Or how she has already predicted that Phil’s demise will come via the storage room ceiling crumbling down on his head one day. (“That place is falling apart!” she humorously quips between scoops). And of course there are stories about the customers themselves, like the one kid who ate a whole entire jumbo cup of marshmallow on a dare, only to have to be taken to the hospital by ambulance 15 minutes later to have his stomach pumped.

Just add pickles

The most amusing part of an evening spent at the stand, however, is Mr. Sinsz himself.  It starts with a grumpily enthusiastic “There she is!” and usually weaves its way into a casual discussion about what’s wrong with everything in Baltimore City, the State of Maryland, and “this damn country” as a whole,  usually ending in with the phrase, “all gone to hell” said in the most jolly way possible.  Long-time customer and local resident, Joan Ford, happily banters between spoonfuls of ice, while sharing stories of Moving Nights gone by, where the local officers didn’t care how much she moved her neighbors porch furniture around as long as she “put it back by the end of the evening,” along with wistful tales of the City College bridge, where she’d meet potential suitors for date nights when she was a young woman. In other words, “The Good Old Days” before we “let traditions go” including “a lot of good that we shouldn’t change.”  I have to agree, wholeheartedly, which is why I’m sad to learn that Phil, who has been telling the neighborhood that he’s going to the sell the business for the last seven years or so, is apparently going through with it after the Christmas tree selling season this Winter.

“Bullshit.”  I replied.  “No!”  He said with a laugh, “I’m serious this time!” and sadly, I think he really is.

Connor is hoping that whoever does buy the place plans to keep the stand open to lease. He’d like to use it as his first real rental space, scooping snowballs and selling his branded jarred goods by day, and trying not to blow up his kitchen making the stuff in the evenings.  I suggested they use the stand this last Winter season to sell cider and hot chocolate so potential buyers see how much this little local place means to the community.  Phil, whose wife used to help run the stand during the holidays, is determined to retire after Christmas, laying  to rest a neighborhood staple that’s, though “not what it used to be” due to lack of help and the appearance of huge home and garden chains like Home Depot and Lowes, is much beloved by this tight-knit Northeast Baltimore community, nonetheless.  Being that in the all the years I’ve been buying plants and snowballs I’ve never actually seen Mrs. Sinsz I’m starting to suspect he’s got her buried somewhere under the begonias and wild mint and is hoping to save his hide before we all find him out.  It’s a theory.  An amusing one.  Just like the memory that Walther Gardens may become next year.  I’m crossing my pickle- and custard-scented fingers and hoping that, for once, some wise, nostalgic soul will listen to Ms. Ford and not let this particular tradition go, like so many have before.

With fluff and love,

Cellina – The Hopeful Foodie.

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Whenever I feel like taking a nice drive out to the middle of nowhere (and retriving the wedding cake topper from the garage of the farm where we got married three years ago) I tend to find myself driving up Interstate 83 to the cute little town of Freeland, Md.  If I’m going to go that far I might as well have a place to stop and gorge myself for a good half hour.  Good thing I found such a place (thanks to my cousin and partner in gluten free gluttony, Holly – who I miss, by the way.  Hint, hint, nudge, nudge)!

Hopeful Foodie’s Review Number Two:

The Red Cafe

Cows.  Rolling hills.  Farmland.  Ah, Northern Baltimore County.  When you think of the previous bits of scenery and picture them in your mind, the last things you expect to hear next are the words “allergy-friendly environment” much less “gluten-free (optional) café.”  But this is Baltimore, people – where anything can happen (and usually does in the most unlikely places).

My newest unlikely place is most truly in the middle of nowhere.  Think Middletown Road – where there are more horses than people and you’re more likely to see a field of growing (insert your local crop here)  than the newest housing development.  Out here, plunked down in a little spot of freshly mown grass surrounding a tiny concrete pad is The Red Café – home of what I call the best “slap your mama cheese steak” south of the PA line and the only place I know of that far north that will serve it to you gluten free.

Yes, that’s right.  Gluten free.  Sans the very wheat that is practically growing across the next field and boy, people, is it good! I had my first little adventure here about a year ago with my cousin who gushed over the freshly-made allergy-friendly sub rolls.  I decided to bring my husband with me this time to finally meet the mastermind behind the counter, Dawn Wilson, and chat with her between bites of tender beefy goodness.

Dawn and her family have been running The Red Café for about 10 years now (minus one year that she was too sick with severe IBS to step into the kitchen).  The inspirations behind the allergy-free options were ones she drew from her own personal experiences in the food department. After years of symptoms and no solid diagnosis, the prescription was an Elimination Diet – basically a total cutout of the 5 main food allergens (dairy, soy, eggs, wheat, nuts, plus corn and rice) for a total of 4-6 weeks followed by the slow reintroduction of said foods. In realizing her trigger foods, Dawn decided that if she was going through this, then others were as well.  Thus the start of the revolving menu – and what a joy it is!

Some of the specialty dishes you can order on any given Thursday through Saturday when The Red Café is open aren’t really specialties at all, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t special in the least. For instance, Dawn makes homemade buckwheat pancakes that she uses as wraps for almost any sub and sandwich on the menu and one of every three soups is always vegan and gluten free.  If you call ahead, she’ll even whip up a gluten-free desert for you and your party (her cheesecakes, I was told, are the gem of the shop).  Of course, there is always pizza (and there aren’t too many places around that make them totally homemade like Dawn does).  Like she says, “Can you imagine being five and never being able to have a pizza?” Feggitaboudit.

The motherload, however, are the cheese steaks.  Sure, you can get almost any sub in the shop served on a wheat-less roll, but really?  Give me the beef!  Dawn’s freshly baked gluten-free sub roll is more like a hot-out-of-the-oven slab of Italian focaccia.  You can not only smell the herbs (basil, oregano, and rosemary are my guesses) wafting from the crusty surface, but actually see them, too.  It’s not overly-crumbly, either, like some half-baked attempts at wheat-free bread.  The cut of steak used is a superb choice and goes nicely with either the roll, or my choice, the whole wheat wrap, which was toasted to an almost toothy texture that had me wailing “Al Dente!” to any stray farmer who happened to stumble in. If that wasn’t enough, the lettuce and tomato wedged in this culinary creation were at the peak of freshness.

After talking each other’s ears off for way over 2 hours (including some very colorful topics brought up by Dawn’s hilarious mother, Pat), ranting about the American food culture and writing down more contact emails than I have in a long time, we finally forced our satisfyingly bloated selves out the door and back into Rural Town, USA. The Red Café is more than worth the drive -the atmosphere being so laid back and friendly and of course, the menu which has a little bit of allergy-friendly goodness in a very unlikely place.

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Marrone!

This is my review of Frank’s Pizza and Pasta that first appeared in The Valley Times column, The Gluten-Free Glutton and has now officially been adopted (and branded) by and as The Hopeful Foodie!

For those of you in the Baltimore area, you know how good this place is.  Now, it’s even better being that the lepers of food-allergy-affliction like you and I can finally say yes to croutons yet again!

Mangia to you, my friends.

Cellina – The Hopeful Foodie

Frank’s Pizza and Pasta

Gluten-Free Heaven

By: The Hopeful Foodie

I remember the first time my husband, Tim and I did the walk of shame down to our most favorite Italian pizzeria – it was a few weeks after we both found out we had some serious food allergies (me – yeast and mold, him – gluten) and we just couldn’t get ourselves to break the news.  Imagine our delight when we discovered we could still enjoy some of the best Italian food in Overlea – slightly modified, but as good as ever.

I’m talking about Frank’s Pizza and Pasta on Belair Rd – a 26 year old neighborhood staple run by Armando Buontempo and his wife, Jo Ann. They just introduced a new gluten-free pizza crust to their customers six weeks ago, but the healthy modifications and accommodating atmosphere have been a long time running.

Jo Ann Buontempo says she and her husband started looking into gluten-free options when a friend of hers was diagnosed with Celiac disease (what is said to be a product of the genetic marker that separates the gluten-tolerant from the gluten-repellant).

“I felt bad that she couldn’t enjoy something as simple as pizza,” says Jo Ann. That’s when she noticed many of her customers had the same complaint and decided to up the ante on her research, since she simply felt that “people should have an option.”

And options they will get at Frank’s, who will also serve their well-known pasta fagioli soup minus the noodles, hold the Parmesan cheese from any dish, and make a superb steak salad with gluten-free croutons (my personal favorite) upon request. Every dish is also made with non-hydrogenated oils, which Jo Ann discovered stopped her then-young children’s chronic acid reflux in its tracks years ago.

But back to that crust.  Topped with the shop’s signature sauce, and blend of Italian cheeses, the slightly buttery-tasting shell (which they special order from Canada) more than holds its own next to the rest of the shop’s traditionally-made pizzas (and this coming from a company who resides on the ironically-named Wheat Road).

Frank’s won’t stop with pizza, however.  In the future, the Buontempos plan on bringing in gluten-free pasta (they already have a whole wheat option) and a few wheat-free desserts, something I’ll be waiting in the wings for with fork in hand.  In the meantime, though, reserve me a steak salad – hold the parm, please.

 

Frank’s Pizza & Pasta

6620 Belair Rd, Overlea Plaza

2 topping gluten-free pizza (ten inch): $14.99

Steak salad: $7.50

Pasta fagioli soup, cup: $4.69

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walk on by

In July I went to Alaska and promised to come back and promptly write all about my amazing trip.  I didn’t and I’ll tell you why: Alaska was, well, in one word – rough.  There’s not a lot that I can say about it, except that 1. it conjured up for me some serious life lessons  and 2. In order to go north you must go south.

Yes, I did go deep into myself during this spiritual sabbatical roller coaster of sorts, but that’s not the only south I’m talking about.  And it did seem for a while there that I had gone so far south that I could almost see brimstone and pitchforks right around the bend, but still not exactly what I’m trying to say.  No, this south was more around the lines of cornbread and chicken backs and sanity through gluttony.

Introducing the only South you’ll ever want or need that damn far north:

Finding myself completely on my own at the end of my trip, I bravely stomped the streets of downtown Anchorage with a duffel bag on my shoulder and a dream in my heart: to find something good to eat!  My breakfast of cold cheese soup and dry salmon wasn’t exactly doing it for me and all of the signs surrounding the downtown area advertising moose this and caribou that had gotten old days ago.  I needed something to sustain me that last day before I said goodbye to a place that held more trauma than joy.  That’s when I stumbled upon the above pictured cafe front and knew I had found love!

With it’s funky decor, down home atmosphere, and to-die-for lemonade, I knew I had walked into the right place.  It also seemed spookily ironic to me that one of my secret pleasures – soul food- would be found as far north as I’d ever traveled.

The owner, Jared Tyler, was a total dear, and made all bartender when I spilled out the plight of my travels.  He also whipped up some green tomatoes for me,  specially fried in cornmeal so I could eat them.  Those babies were gobbled down so fast I didn’t have a chance to swipe a pic of them, but they did come with this artichoke and sweet onion chow chow that knocked the socks right off of this south of the Mason-Dixon Line foodie.

Here are the pics that I did manage to take of this charming  little haven:

Welcome, y'all!

Georgia heat inside, tundra outside!

mmm, mmm good

Pickle me tender

truffle-licous

Come in an' sit a spell

Needless to say, I do want to go back to the last frontier one day despite the insanity that ensued, mostly because what I encountered at the end of my trip gave me something I base my whole blog on – hope.  What I expected to see was more along the lines of antlers,  glaciers, and the occasional bear or two but what I got was much, much more: peace of mind and the contentment of a full tummy after a long day’s night in the land no of return.  Oh yes, and the best mother effin’ truffles I’ve ever had in my whole darn-tootin’ existence!

Now that’s an endorsement!

Forever yours,

Cellina

Southern Belle & Hopeful Foodie

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