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Over the last few years, Baltimore’s food scene has exploded. New places opening up all the time, collaborations are everywhere, pop-ups, beer and wine dinners and more. And on the drinks side of the house, many local bartenders are using fresh housemade ingredients, creative spirits and featuring products from local breweries, wineries, distillers. And, it’s only going to get better – the next five years will be huge years of growth for food and drink in Baltimore. #ilovethiscity

So, yeah, I go out a lot. It’s research for the most part…but of course it’s fun, too. I do have many favorite places, chefs and bartenders around town and when I go back to those places, I try to always order something I haven’t had before. The best people in food & drink are people who play, think, obsess, tinker, study, experiment, research, share. And I love seeing what they’re doing.

Some people order their favorite dish every time…and that’s their choice. It’s smart and safe. However, since I write about food and drinks, it’s a necessity for me to try new things. And now, so many restaurants have seasonal menus using what’s available locally, so it’s easy to try something new.

(However.)

Sometimes I really just do want that one really delicious thing I had the last time I visited, so I’ve put together a list of my top 20 “go to” items in Baltimore.

20:  Roast Chicken at Petit Louis
Many people say they don’t order chicken out at restaurants very often. This is one of those instances where you throw that thought process out. Roast chicken at Petit Louis in Roland Park is beautifully browned and juicy and perfect. It comes in a cast iron skillet and is carved tableside. Also, they will even pack up the carcass for you to use at home to make chicken stock. Just ask, they are so nice there.

19: Queso Fundido at Papi’s
The simplest of pleasures: thin, crispy, salty chips dipped into slightly spicy cheesy ridiculousness at one of Baltimore’s best little bars. Be sure to order a house margarita (SALT!) at this Fell’s Point favorite to wash it all down.

18: Tempura Shrimp at Café Cito
Once a month, Dave Sherman offers dinner and one such weekend night, I stopped into “Cito” for a bite. I brought along a bottle of wine from The Wine Source (literally around the corner in Hampden) and enjoyed several small courses, but the tempura shrimp was the star. Crispy, warm, spicy, flavorful.

17: Wild Boar Bolognese at Birroteca
Very rarely do I order the same thing over and over. At Birroteca in Hampden, rule goes out the window with the bolognese – it’s all made in-house and every single time, I’m so happy. The meat sauce has the slightest sweetness, perfect amount of meat to sauce. I want to buy that sauce. Can I please buy that sauce? But I love going to Birroteca. That grilled calamari is a close second to the beloved bolognese…

16: Fumo e Fuoco Pizza at Hersh’s
This pizza has something on it that I normally don’t love, eggplant. In this instance, I think that the combination of the fact that the eggplant is fried, plus smoked mozzarella and chili oil just works. Pair it with a local craft beer on tap at this so-much-more-than pizza place in Riverside and I’m done.

15: Tuna Tartare at Lobo
This warm, welcoming easy, unassuming Fell’s Point bar is absolutely my favorite in the city. And from their tiny, tiny open kitchen, they put out some very delicious fare. Chef Dave Munyon’s tuna tartare is super simple, yet has so much flavor. Chanterelle-ginger infused soy sauce, sesame, fried garlic, micro celery and fried wontons. The best.

14.  Korean BBQ Fries at Local Fry
The Local Fry owners Liz and Kevin Irish have created a fries and wings place (BYOB, too) that is a destination, not just a place you hit after a few drinks in Federal Hill. The menu changes a lot and when they have them, you must get the Korean BBQ fries: French fries topped with Korean marinated beef ribeye, sauteed carrots and onions, crema, scallions, toasted sesame seeds.

13: Buttermilk Pancakes at Johnny’s
I was introduced to these fantastic pancakes in Roland Park last year and then, well, I was done. They are soft, fluffy and not too sweet. But yes, add butter and syrup. Get a short stack, save room for the fried rice and a cappuccino from one of Baltimore’s best baristas, Lindsay DiFabbio.

12: Fish & Chips at Corner Pantry
Chef Neill Howell, bless your British heart for serving up crispy fried fish and chips (we Americans call ‘em fries) and the most perfectly mushy peas every Friday at his North Baltimore cafe. I also love that Chef Neill uses actual newspaper for plating (mine was served on the Baltimore Sun.)

11: Short Rib at The Food Market
When the weather turns to fall, I love seeing the Short Rib on the menu at The Food Market. It’s falling apart, right into those soft and creamy mashed potatoes with carrots, gouda, hickory jus and topped with something I never liked before, an onion ring. All of those flavors and textures work together. Get some each thing on that fork. Yummmm.

10: Charcuterie at Sugarvale
Dooby’s Chef Tim Dyson and Sugarvale Chef Lori Yanke are putting out really lovely food in this new Mt. Vernon cocktail bar. Their charcuterie, to me, has been the best in the city. Everything from Bresaola, Ginger Chicken Liver Mousse, Duck Ham to Country Pate and Beef Carpaccio…all amazing. (I also love their tartare, but it seems I have a tartare problem. Wait, define problem.)

9: Mortadella Mousse at Aggio
It’s probably a little weird that I’d list something that comes with bread service as a favorite dish, but – holy moly – it is the best thing. Bryan Voltaggio literally whips mortadella (kinda like fancy bologna) into a wonderfully, creamy spread for the warm house focaccia. This comes with your meal. So, it’s essentially FREE. Go sit at the bar and have a happy hour cocktail ($6) and ask for this. You will be so happy.

8: Cinnamon Roll at Sobo Café
Federal Hill’s Sobo Cafe is one of my favorite places for brunch and when I go, I have to save room for a cinnamon roll. And with those crazy biscuits, eggs bene and more, that’s not always easy. And for me to add something sweet to my favorites list, it has to knock my socks off. This is not your average cinnamon roll. Run. Get this.

7: Ribeye at Peter’s Inn
Comforting steak and mashed potatoes in one of Baltimore’s most iconic places? I’d call that a perfect night. Peter’s in Fell’s Point is part dive bar (I say that with love) and part fine dining. It is wonderful, classically Baltimore and the ribeye is not to be missed. Also, be sure you visit the ladies room. It is memorable to say the least. Best restroom in Bmore.

6: Burger at Swallow at the Hollow
Another kind of divey place – although it was decidedly more divey before the smoking ban – is the Swallow next to Belvedere Square. The burgers here are my favorite in the city – so juicy and flavorful on a toasted bun – and great fries, too. Start with wings, head to burgers, a local craft beer and watch the O’s game. This is one of the last quintessential Baltimore places.

5: Crunchy Chicken Sandwich at Wit & Wisdom
I don’t know exactly what Chef Zack Mills does to make the chicken so crunchy on the outside and juicy inside, but it’s insane. It’s served with bread & butter pickles and spicy mayo on a toasted baguette and when you take a bite, all of those flavors and textures together work perfectly. I don’t usually lose it over a sandwich, but this is not your average sandwich, not at all.

4: Baked Pumpkin at Helmand
At Mt. Vernon’s Helmand, the Kaddo Borwani is the stuff of legends. It’s baked baby pumpkin with sugar and served on yogurt garlic sauce. Perfect texture and flavor, I could have this every week. I even tried to make it when Baltimore Magazine published the recipe but it was a big flop. I never did that again, I just went back to the Helmand.

3: Ceviche at Puerto 511
My meal at mid-town’s Puerto 511 was my most memorable of the last year? Why? Ceviche. This tiny, hidden Peruvian restaurant (20 seats or so) is such a gem. The ceviche is fresh and bright, thanks to the combination of lime juice, peppers and fish juice. There are three kinds of ceviche on the menu and you and your table should order all three. This place is hard to find, but once you do, it’s pretty wonderful.

2: Lobster Roll at Thames Street Oyster House
This lobster roll has won both Judge’s Choice and People’s Choice at Tasting Table’s annual Lobster Rumble in NYC. Yep, that’s right. A lobster roll from Baltimore beat Maine, hon. It’s an insanely buttery roll, filled with a ton of warm, buttery lobster. Served with fries, and for me, enjoyed with a cold beer at the bar in this bright, friendly Fell’s Point mainstay.

1: Steak & Griddled Potatoes at Parts & Labor
At Spike Gjerde’s Remington butcher shop and restaurant, they use the whole animal. So, the menu changes constantly, based on what they have on hand. And nine times out of ten, I’m going steak and potatoes. They are cooked on the hearth in the open kitchen and the char is so nice. Also, the steaks come with the brightest, freshest herb relish for dipping. That, plus a couple of small pours from their ever-changing craft beer list and I’m one happy girl.