Sunday, August 03, 2008

Exits 38A & B: MD-150 (Eastern Blvd)

The first exit after the MD-702 off-shoot takes you not to the mythical Exit 37 (who knows where that would have taken you) right back to Eastern Blvd. The inner loop divides this 38th exit into two, the outer loop does not, but they all take you to the same place - so I'm just doing them together. And if I had driven too far in either direction, I would have wound up at locations I have previously hit up (qv Exits 33A and 36).

Exit 38A: East Point

Until you get to Hopkins and the Broadway Diner, there are relatively slim pickins going this direction. This exit's main attraction is the new and improved Eastpoint Mall (map). I didn't head in - pretty much fast food. This doesn't count the Golden Corral, which closed down - not a rarity among businesses in this area, sadly. Now the only food you can see driving by Eastpoint Mall is the Checkers. Yes, this Mobile, Alabama-based chain is a big chain, and yes it is fast food. I never realized they are, according to Wikipedia, the largest double-drive-thru fast food chain in America. That's a pretty unique distinction, no? Their sings are starting to bear a striking resemblance to the ones at Hardee's, now a subsidiary of California's evil Carl's Jr. Hell, even Hardee's and Carl's carbon-copy websites clog your arteries!

If you're really hankerin' for a buffet, too bad. But there is a Cactus Willie's (map) across the street, which serves many of the same types of foods you'd find at a buffet. It's one of five in existence.

Fleeing Easpoint Mall, you could turn up MD-151 to North Point Blvd. I stuck with 150 and headed a bit further west, towards the city and Oak Lawn Cemetery. In case you were wondering, this isn't the same cemetery you can see off of I-95 just out of the tunnel. You've seen it. It's the one that slopes down a steep hill and looks like it's about to fall onto the freeway but never quite does. I think it's Mount Carmel.

A few of the offerings I found between Eastpoint and Oak Lawn Cemetery and the city/county line:

  • Zetto Subs & Pizza (map) - This is a smallish pizza and subs place across the street from Eastpoint Mall. I didn't get the chance to stop in here. It's one of the few places other than McDonald's in this stretch of Eastern Blvd.
  • Oh look! Another Mo's Seafood Restaurant (map)!
  • Greek Village Carry-Out (map) - Greektown's influence reaches as far as the county with this place. They're all on vacation until mid-August, so I'll have to wait before I can go there.
Exit 38B: Back River and Essex

The lack of options off 38A is made up for when you go the other way, as your options really open up past the Back River. Even before that is the Blue Fins Seafood Restaurant (map), which is really difficult to photograph while driving by. I passed by this riverside seafood restaurant a few times (once around the dinner hour, once around lunch time), and each time it looked like there were a few cars. Hopefully I will get a chance to check it out at some point. I might not, though, since it's up for public auction. Let's wait and see.

Far more options lie on the other side of the river, where Eastern Avenue magically transforms into Eastern Boulevard. Among the ones I saw on the way:
  • Safa Pizza and La Nueva Esperansa Grocery (map). I put them together because they have the exact same address. This caused me some confusion at first - is one open while the other is closed? Nope - they're just in the same building. I should have stopped by La Nueva Esparansa since I needed to pick up one or two things, but I'll have to go back. Safa is a small local chain with three locations around the southern side of the Beltway, including ones in Glen Burnie, Dundalk and here in Essex. One reviewer liked the pizza at the Dundalk location. Nobody seems to have reviewed the one in Essex.
  • The Smokehouse Barb-B-Que (map) hasn't even opened yet. I think they'll be selling barbecue. Coincidentally, it's scheduled to open on the day after this post goes up - August 4.
  • Man Hing (map), with just about the most colorful and fun sign of any Chinese restaurant I have seen, well, anywhere in Baltimore. I didn't stop in but if the owners are putting as much care into their food as they do in their signage, then maybe it'll be one of the better Chinese restaurants in Baltimore County. I haven't found anything negative about it yet.
  • So many crabs! At least three locations in the stretch of a few blocks. Since the bank account doesn't afford a sit-down crabfeast at this time, I didn't stop in. But with so many around there is just no excuse to not go back and visit at least one.
    • One place, CC's Crabs and Catering (map), is in a big, square yellow building and does catering as well as eat-in. Plus, CC's is also a bar and grill-type establishment, with nightly happy hours, almost nightly Ladies' Nights, and the occasional karaoke contest and entertainer. Their happy hour extends not just to their drinks, but to their crabs, crab cakes and pit beef sammiches as well.
    • Across the street is better-known Mr. Bill's Terrace Inn (map). Mr. Bill's is next to Man Hing, and advertises its crabs prominently on its sign. They sorta have to. The Sun's Liz Large visited a few years ago. The food and the atmosphere were both good, though the service was closer to fair than to fine. Since it gets touristy around this time of year, now may not be such a good time to visit. When you do, based on reviews like these and these, you'll probably like it.
    • A few doors down from Bill's is Crabland (map), "Home of the Big Dozen", which is next to, and certainly affiliated with, the "Home of the Big Bushel", Fruitland (same map). They also share a parking lot and the world's largest crab basket. Karen Lee Ryan includes both Crabland and Fruit near the northern terminus of her College Park-to-Baltimore "Road Trip" for the Washington Post.
I didn't stop in Crabland, but I did pop into Fruitland for a minute. They do sell fresh, raw, local seafood (local meaning Chesapeake, though much of it is from Maryland). And they do sell lots of produce. I wanted to snap a photo or two before I bought anything but the folks there give you almost immediate service (and it's embarrassing to explain that you just want to take a picture of the place before you go shopping). It was strange, actually: it was as if I wasn't allowed to browse the produce (most if not all of it is locally grown - again mostly Maryland). A few things I learned here: peaches are now in season in Maryland, and the guy who helped me said he picked the corn he was selling that morning. Whether or not, I bought six ears for $2.75, a bit less than at most farmers' markets. I also got me six soft-shell crabs for $10 (larger ones went for 3 or 4 for $10).

Mmmm. Soft crabs and corn.

I stopped in two restaurants over the course of as many days. My first visit was to Uncle Eddie's (map). They caught my eye because not only were they the same yellow color as CC's (lighter shade - looks a lot better than the older color), but because I had an Uncle Eddie when I was a very young child. But he died in the mid-70's so my memories of him are, at best, vague.

Uncle Eddie's is a family restaurant-type establishment, with that familiar family restaurant smell, only a bit darker and dingier. Price-wise, the offerings at Uncle Eddie's are about mid-range. If you want a full-course meal, expect to pay about $20. That's what I did. I wanted to go for one of their nightly specials, but one dish that Uncle Eddie's touts as a mainstay for the past 60 years is its pan fried haddock ($15). I thought it'd be good to try a signature dish and I spent the few extra dollars for it. With it came a complementary soup (I went for the Manhattan clam chowder) and my choice of two vegetables. I chose corn - a safe bet - and fried sweet potatoes. Not sweet potato fries, not sweet potato hash and not mashed sweet potatoes. These were just chunks of sweet potato, fried, probably in butter, maybe with a little brown sugar. I couldn't tell. I also got free bread with my meal. I'm not sure if Uncle Eddie's believes in portion control or not.

One note about the service: it is pretty friendly. They seem to have a rapport with the patrons here (makes sense in a 60-year-old establishment). My waitress constantly asked if the food was alright and if there was anything wrong. I like that kind of concern.

The Manhattan clam chowder. I never got a good shot of my entrée.

But while the service was good, the food was pretty mixed. Here's what I liked and what I didn't like:
  • The Manhattan clam chowder - which is red, not white - was still the creamiest I had ever had. I liked it, and only had one chewy-beyond-belief clam. I'd eat this again. Same with the fried sweet potatoes, which were delicious once cooled down.
  • Sadly, I didn't care for the haddock. I really wanted to like this, but with every bite one thought kept running through my mind: "This has been a popular dish for six decades?" Maybe I just caught them on an off-night (since there are a few good user reviews floating around about this place): I got a pound or so of fish, which was dense, heavy, a little dry and not flavorful at all. The most disappointing part was the breading - if the breading is crispy and tasty I can forgive the rest, but while it wasn't greasy at all, it also was not crispy or, again, flavorful. The texture was literally as if they warmed up a brown paper bag, wrapped the haddock in the bag, and then gave it to me. And there were some hard bits on the breading that weren't very good. The corn was pretty bad - I hardly touched it.
With tax and tip - you tip for service, not for how the food tastes - I paid about $19.

A bit better was what I got the next day at the Essex Diner (map). It's easy to miss if you're racing down Eastern Blvd (which you shouldn't be doing in the first place), but driving at a normal pace you'll find this diner on your right just after you cross eastbound on the Back River bridge. It must be relatively new, as just three year-old photos of this building show the Casa Luna Pizzeria Restaurant.

If Uncle Eddie's is dark and dingy, the Essex Diner is brighter and more colorful. Essex Diner is not a shiny, flashy diner like the ones I have visited recently. It's actually more of a beige color. And it's pretty small and cozy, with photos of staff, friends and family all up and down the doorway into the kitchen. This does not detract from the soaps playing on the two TV's at either end of the restaurant.

The menu is not small, and has all the typical offerings of your standard Baltimore diner: the pastas, the subs, the burgers, the platters, the Greek selections, the Italian selections, the breakfasts, and the refrigerated case of pies and cakes (well, cake slices at least). I wanted a regular burger but instead opted for a plate of sliders (3 for $5.50) and some gravy fries (about $2.50). With tax I paid about $8.50.

Sliders and gravy fries. Jerry O'Connell not included.

I should've eaten there because they would probably have been moister right out of the kitchen, instead of sitting in a styrofoam container for a half an hour car ride (oh, and I went to Fruitland before I got home). So I understand why the sliders, tiny things that they are, were as dry as they were. Plus, it was easy to lose all that meat underneath the massive pile of fried onions and chopped-up pickles on top of each slider (they used dinner rolls for the buns - good idea). There were about as many onions on this slider as I would've put on a regular-sized burger. I'm not knocking the flavor. They were tasty. The fries were filling - very filling. I liked the flavor, but the gravy was really the only thing making me like them. I love 'em gravy fries.

Other photos:

They're coming to get you, Bar-ba-ra...

Eastern Avenue, looking east towards Eastern Boulevard (and Essex)

Jus' speedin' bah de Back Rivver, Mis'r Po-leece Man, hon. Ah didn't wanna fall in. 'Oniss!

Welcome to yer Essex Wunnerlaaaand!

That's a big bushel!

Places I visited:

Essex Diner (diner) - 15 Eastern Boulevard, Essex, MD 21221; Phone: (410) 238-1400
  • Would I eat there again? Yes
  • Would I go out of my way to eat there again? Maybe
Fruitland (market - local produce) - 106 Eastern Boulevard, Essex, MD 21221; Phone: (410) 574-9866
  • Would I shop there again? Sure
  • Would I go out of my way to shop there again? Probably for the seafood, but maybe not the produce - local farmers' markets have much the same stuff without me using as much gas to get to it.
Uncle Eddie's (American / family restaurant) - 424 1/2 Eastern Boulevard, Essex, MD 21221; Phone: (410) 686-1321
  • Would I eat there again? It depends on what I ordered
  • Would I go out of my way to eat there again? No
Places to look up later:

Blue Fins Seafood Restaurant (crabs / seafood) - 8247 Eastern Avenue, Essex, MD 21224; Phone: (410) 282-5050

CC's Crabs and Catering (crabs / American) - 409 Eastern Boulevard, Essex, MD 21221; Phone: (410) 780-2626

Crabland (crabs) - 120 Eastern Boulevard, Essex, MD 21221; Phone: (410) 687-6260

Cactus Willie's (American - one of five locations in Maryland and Pennsylvania) - 7940 Eastern Avenue, Essex, MD 21224; Phone: (410) 282-8268

Greek Village Carry-Out (Greek) - 7308 Eastern Avenue, Essex, MD 21224; Phone: (410) 282-1700

La Nueva Esperansa Grocery (market - Latin American) - 437 Eastern Boulevard, Essex, MD 21221; Phone: (410) 686-1000

Man Hing (Chinese) - 204 Eastern Boulevard, Essex, MD 21221; Phone: (410) 687-2010

Mo's Seafood Restaurant (seafood / crabs) - 7600 Eastern Avenue, Essex, MD 21224; Phone: (410) 288-2424

Mr. Bill's Terrace Inn (crabs) - 200 Eastern Boulevard, Essex, MD 21221; Phone: (410) 687-5996

Safa Pizza (pizza) - 437 Eastern Boulevard, Essex, MD 21221; Phone: (410) 682-3806

Smokehouse Barb-B-Que (map) - 210 Eastern Boulevard, Essex, MD 21221; Phone: (410) 686-7888

Zetto Subs & Pizza (pizza and subs) - 7842 Eastern Avenue, Essex, MD 21224; Phone: (410) 288-2833

Essex Diner on Urbanspoon

for Essex Diner

Uncle Eddie's on Urbanspoon

for Uncle Eddie's