Kavkaz Kebab 10902 Boulevard Circle, Suite 3, Owings Mills, 410-998-9004, http://www.kavkazkebab.com
Confession: We didn’t know where Azerbaijan was prior to eating at Kavkaz Kebab. Sure, we knew it was part of the former Soviet Union, but just where it sat—no idea. Good thing eating is a tasty geography lesson. An Azerbaijani meal might include hummus, potato and mushroom soup, a kebab over pilaf and Turkish coffee. At the end of it, you know in your gut (literally) that the food is both European and Middle Eastern. Sure enough, Azerbaijan is surrounded by Russia, Georgia, Armenia and Iran, perched on the Caspian Sea.
Back story: In 1991, Albert and Zoya Azariah emigrated from Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, to Baltimore. Nearly 20 years later, Albert decided to fulfill a lifelong dream of owning a restaurant. Since he was old enough to cook, Albert had been known for his kebabs. Zoya, on the other hand, specialized in soups, salads and side dishes. Together they created the menu for Kavkaz Kebab. The Azariahs originally thought their clientele would be mainly Russian, but these days people of all nationalities come in.
The Setting: The decor evokes a traditional Azerbaijani home, with rugs, photographs and wall hangings. Set among the chain restaurants of Owings Mills Boulevard, it’s a welcome breath of homey authenticity.
Try it: Of course order a kebab—it comes right off the charcoal grill, juicy and flavorful. But don’t miss piti soup, which is a hearty broth cooked in a clay pot that has lamb, potato and chickpeas and the added surprise of a dried sour plum. The eggplant saute is a hit, as is the lobio salad, a red bean salad that is a staple of Azerbaijani cuisine.
For the adventurous: Kutabi is a crepe filled with meat or greens and served with a yogurt sauce. Think of it as a Azerbaijani quesadilla, but without cheese. And better. —L.W.
Island Quizine 8128 Liberty Road, Woodlawn, 410-922-9221 and 204 Reisterstown Road, Pikesville, 410-415-7003, http://www.islandquizine.com
Don’t worry, if you’ve never tried Jamaican food before, Island Quizine owner Donovan Murphy will gladly offer you free samples of jerk, curried and brown stewed chicken as well as rice and peas, all served in a pretty ceramic dish. He’ll even let you wash it down with a complimentary champagne glass of home-brewed pineapple-ginger juice mixed with tropical punch. Really, why doesn’t every restaurant do this?
Back story: Murphy, a fiber optic engineer, used to cook for staff meetings at his company, guaranteeing a healthy turnout. In 2010, he took over what had been a Caribbean restaurant on Liberty Road and last year he opened another location in Pikesville. Murphy says he’d like to open a new Island Quizine every year, but in the meantime, he’s kept busy with a catering business, favored by visiting pop singers from the Caribbean as well as Baltimore Ravens players.
The setting: The original Liberty Road locale is far larger and more attractive inside with brightly painted walls, leatherette booths and cloth napkins. Wall hangings mix Jamaican memorabilia with photos of Ray Lewis and the team. The Pikesville location has just five tables and is better suited to takeout.
Try It: We like Murphy’s spicy jerk sauce, but the mellow brown stewed chicken tastes like something a loving Jamaican mother would make. Seafood— from tilapia in a sweet-spicy mango-coconut sauce to a curried lobster tail— elevates the menu from your typical jerk joint. You also can find authentic Jamaican breakfasts of ackee or callaloo with saltfish or a jerk omelet stuffed with chicken, pineapple, onions and red and yellow peppers. And if you sample that pineapple-ginger-fruit-punch concoction, you’ll undoubtedly order another glass.
For the adventurous: The restaurant offers a different Jamaican soup every day, including cow foot soup on Saturdays. “It’s known for creating stamina,” notes Murphy. “Men drink it a lot because they think it makes them stronger. It works!”—J.S.
‘Authentic’ Hunan Chinese
Hunan Taste 718 N. Rolling Road, Catonsville, 410-788-8988, http://www.hunantastemd.com
If we’ve heard it once, we’ve heard it a thousand times: the Chinese food we eat in the United States is not real Chinese food. We weren’t sure what that really meant until we visited Hunan Taste, where the small “American” menu (featuring recognizables like General Tsao’s chicken, wonton soup, spareribs) should be eschewed in favor of delectable Hunan delights: hot pots, sizzling plates, casseroles and exotic meats and vegetables. Go with friends and order several dishes to share.
Back story: Owner Weihe Zhang opened Hunan Taste in 2009, bringing over a cook from Hunan Province to serve as “chairman chef” and create traditional food for homesick Chinese in the area. Turns out lots of Americans crave the stuff, too. The good news is that Zhang, also the owner of Jasmine Smoothie World and Bubble Tea, which has locations at several area malls, plans to open a second location of Hunan Taste in Towson by the end of the year.
The Setting: Yes, it’s a strip mall. But it’s charming. There are carved rosewood screens and banquettes, red drum lights hanging from the ceiling and a mural of a 500-year-old Chinese market scene on the wall. On weekends, the restaurant is full of Asian families who stock up at Hmart next door, then walk down for a big meal.
Try it: Steamed fish head with diced hot red peppers might not be your first choice, but don’t shy away. It’s a lovely mix of succulent flesh in a tangy, spicy sauce— definitely worth navigating the bones for. Cumin lamb is so far from the usual Chinese fare that you’ll think you’re in a Middle Eastern restaurant, but don’t worry, Mao’s braised pork with brown sauce will remind you where you are. For vegetables, try the sauteed snow pea leaves, eggplant on iron plate or the cucumber in garlic sauce— or ask your waiter what’s freshest.
For the adventurous: Take your pick of turtle and frog served several different ways. —L.W.
Mama rosa’s rotisserie & grill 836 Middle River Road, Middle River, 443-559-5900
Filipino restaurants are as rare as World Series in these parts. According to dining review site Yelp!, even Washingtonians are forced to trek to Middle River to get their fix of lumpia (egg rolls), sizzling pusit (sautéed squid) or laing (dried taro leaves cooked in coconut milk). Philippine cuisine is a melting pot of Malay, Indian, Chinese, Spanish and American influences that combines salty, sweet and spicy flavors. You’ll eat plenty of rice as well as some animal parts you won’t necessarily find at your local Giant.
Back story: Owners Leocadia and Alvino Lim opened the restaurant in late 2009. The chef is Marcelino Lopez, a former Merchant Marine, who cooked for years at a well-known restaurant in the Philippines, famous for its barbecued chicken on a stick.
The setting: The restaurant’s casual fast-food ambience could double for any strip mall sub shop, but you will find bags of garlic-flavored pork skins and pan de sal, Philippine breads, imported from Newark, N.J., stacked by the counter. Most of the food is kept in warmers behind glass and first-timers will undoubtedly need help from employees in deciphering dishes. Check out the restaurant’s comprehensive Facebook page for pictures and daily
Try It: Chicken inasal is the Filipino equivalent of Peruvian chicken (which Mama Rosa also offers). Both are cooked slowly on the rotisserie, creating a juicy flavorful bird, but the Filipino version offers a fruity tang, due to its marinade of vinegar, garlic, atsuete, a food coloring derived from the seeds of the tropical achiote tree, and calamansi, a citrus fruit. We loved the sides of atsara, pickled papaya flavored with garlic, onion and red and green peppers, and the worth-the-trip purple yam ice cream that gets mixed into the halo-halo, a traditional Filipino dessert drink that’s also made with evaporated milk, tapioca and coconut. Seriously, if we could bathe in purple yam ice cream, we would.
For the adventurous: The traditional Filipino dish sisig is made from a pig’s head and liver and seasoned with calamansi and chili peppers. —J.S.
Orchard Market & Café 8815 Orchard Tree Lane, Towson 410-339-7700, http://www.orchardmarketandcafe.com
Hidden like some exotic culinary jewel behind the Gardiners Furniture store off Joppa Road in Towson, Orchard Market & Café has had a strong following since opening in 1988. And while the ubiquitous kebab may have originated in Iran, Orchard Market’s diverse menu features far more than meat on a stick.
Back story: Iranian Michael Mir opened the business, but only turned it into a full-fledged Persian restaurant when he hired recently immigrated Nahid Vaezpour as chef in 1990. Vaezpour, who had reared and fed 18 children between two marriages in Iran, thought nothing of cooking up meals for the general public. (Coincidentally, Orchard Market & Café has 18 tables.) In 1997, Jason Bulkeley and his wife, Sharareh, Vaezpour’s daughter, took over the restaurant—and mom, now 72, still does the cooking.
The Setting: A tinkling wall fountain, vases full of flowers and a lone Doric column in the middle of the dining room lend the restaurant a peaceful vibe. The walls boast photographs and paintings of Iran and a few sketches by Bulkeley. It’s purely a family affair here, as the Bulkeleys wait on tables themselves, often chatting up longtime customers and friends.
Try It: Fesenjune, which derives from the French word for pheasant, as Bulkeley, a former military linguist, explains, is the national dish, and chef Vaezpour does her native country proud: boneless breast of chicken (or duck on the dinner menu) is smothered in a hauntingly good sauce made of ground pomegranate and walnuts and spiced with cinnamon, garlic and tomato paste. You’ll find some of the county’s best hummus here, as well as a memorable eggplant and artichoke dish made with Bulgarian feta cheese and smothered in a tangy-sweet dill Dijon mustard sauce.
For the adventurous: Try the Zaban pita sandwhich—poached and sautéed veal tongue, seasoned with Persian saffron,
advieh (Persian curry) and garlic. —J.S.
Havana Road Cuban Cafe 8 W. Pennsylvania Ave, Towson, 410-494-8222, http://www.havanaroad.com
Havana Road Cuban Café owner Marta Quintana believes she has to educate people about what Cuban food is not— Mexican, spicy—and what it is—flavorful, fresh and hearty, with an emphasis on drawing flavors out through slow-roasting, and through the glory that is mojo sauce.
Back story: In 2009, Quintana rented a cozy storefront in the heart of Towson with the plan of producing wholesale and retail Cuban food. But every time she started cooking, people knocked on the door and asked when the restaurant was opening. So in 2010, she opened a cafe just for lunch. Then people started making dinner reservations. Now, the restaurant is her main emphasis. As executive chef, Quintana is ably assisted by her 85-year-old mother, Martha, creator of the popular carne con papas (beef stew) and her daughter, Ines, who makes all the desserts.
The Setting: It’s a charming little BYOB spot with pretty pendant lights, warm colors and family photos from Cuba hanging on the walls.
Try it: You can’t go wrong with El Cubano, the quintessential Cuban sandwich. But you should also sample newer menu items like pork tagine and mofungo (garlic mashed plantains stuffed with seafood or pork) that reflect the international influences on Cuba’s cuisine. And Havana Road does a terrific rendition of the Cuban classic picadillo, ground beef simmered in olives, capers, raisins and more. Whatever you do, make sure you get some sweet plantains.
For the adventurous: Try the mango flan, which is rich and creamy, and the rum cake, which is positively soaked in Cuba’s national liquor. —L.W.
Silk Road Bistro 607 Reisterstown Road, Pikesville, 410-878-2929
It’s no secret that Reisterstown Road has become the place to find food from countries formerly part of the Soviet Union. More than a few market/delis serve up golden cans of smoked sprats and fat loaves of pumpernickel bread, but Silk Road Bistro is the only place you can find plov— chunks of marinated lamb served over spiced basmati rice— the national dish of Uzbekistan.
Back story: Owners Shahboz Eshpulatov and Azim Suvanov hail from Samarkand, an Uzbeki city along the old Silk Road, the historic network of trade routes across Eurasia. The young 30-somethings both earned M.B.A.s from American universities and opened Silk Road in 2010, along with another business partner who lives in New York. Eshpulatov says Uzbek cuisine is a melting pot of Turkish, Mongolian and Afghan influences, reflecting the country’s location and history. “It’s very different than what people typically think of Russian food,” he says. “There’s a lot of lamb and spices— cumin, coriander. We use a tandoori oven to bake our bread.”
The Setting: Located next to a Domino’s Pizza in the heart of Pikesville, the restaurant has only a dozen tables, most of which are filled on Thursday nights when a belly dancer entertains. Beautiful hand-painted dishes from eastern Uzbekistan hang on the walls, which are treated with mud and straw, simulating a traditional Uzbeki home.
Try It: Plov may be the national dish, but we prefer the manti, steamed dumplings filled with ground lamb, potato or— our favorite— pumpkin. A half dozen interesting salads fill the menu, including one topped with suzma sauce, a homemade sour yogurt. Also try the samsa, a cousin to the Indian samosa, fried and filled with lamb and served with a deliciously spiced tomato-based sauce.
For the adventurous: You should know that the lamb “fries” are actually fried strips of lamb intestine. —J.S.