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Cruisin' Charm City

It had been too long. When spring weather arrived and the opportunity arose, we headed back to Baltimore for the first time since 2019. I imagine a lot of people feel that way about traveling - it's been too long. I'm grateful we have the health and opportunity to do it. I love Baltimore. Every time I go, though, my timing is off. It's early in the week when the museums I want to visit are closed. It happened again this time, and COVID hasn't helped anyone extend their hours.


No matter. I uncovered some reasonably priced tickets for the Orioles-Mariners game (more difficult to do, of course, with reduced seating capacities this year) and headed south. Similar to how I enjoy the process of mowing the lawn so I can meditate and roll around thoughts, a good road trip pays dividends long before reaching the destination.


Getting out of the neighborhood, the area, the state, the region opened me up and renewed my energy. I have a list of places to see and food to eat for areas all over the country. Three times driving down to Baltimore and I still haven't finished that part of my list.


Food


We'll start with food because it was the first significant stop down I-95. The way things broke, we were supposed to arrive in Aberdeen around 12:15, right in the middle of lunchtime, right in time to pull into the Chaps Pit Beef location there. I'm a traditionalist, and I've never eaten at Chaps. Part of me wanted to hold out and visit the original location at 5801 Pulaski Highway in Baltimore, but my stomach overruled. Anyway, I'll leave the original spot on my list for future visits. I don't remember where I heard or read about Chaps. It wasn't on Food Network, though they've been featured many times. I believe it was because the first pit beef sandwich I ate was at Boog's Barbecue inside Camden Yards before an O's-A's game in April 2019. That was a great sandwich. And I wondered if it was the best around when it came to the unique Maryland-style BBQ of beef sliced thinly from a roast cooked over a charcoal fire. Turns out, A LOT of people say Chaps is the can't-beat-it place to go.


I'm not gonna argue. My son and I went for straight beef on a bun, nothing else. Love that hint of charcoal flavor in the bark! And the meat was tender as can be. I had to try the house BBQ sauce and the Tiger Sauce, which is the signature horseradish sauce. Both are outstanding. Actually, everything was outstanding. The staff. The food. We were having a blast being on the road again. On the way home, I stopped here again and loaded up with four more sandwiches, the sausage and fries to share with my wife and youngest son who didn't travel with us. Big hits all around. It's now an absolute-must-stop for every drive down to Baltimore.


If I'm in Maryland, and especially if I'm in Baltimore, I gotta have crab cakes. It's my favorite way to eat crabs. And I'd say it's my favorite seafood. Lobster roll? Yes, with butter. Fish and shrimp? Certainly. But crab cakes? NO QUESTION, especially when sourced right outside the door. I have to admit, I didn't get the same delicious crab cakes I got in 2019 for a couple of reasons. One, we didn't make it back to Duda's Tavern in Fell's Point this time. I love that neighborhood and love that joint....family owned and operated since 1949, killer crab cakes and burgers. Gotta be the best crab cakes I've ever eaten, right by the Frederick Douglass Maritime Park. Two, a place near Camden Yards that served a wonderful mound of crab has since closed - Frank and Nic's West End Grille.


I didn't take this photo. It belongs to Duda's Tavern.


That's always a sad thing to see, especially when it's a restaurant that gives you good memories. Speaking of, you can imagine the commotion, music and good vibes that accompany all the pre-Orioles game festivities at two bars just beyond Camden Yards - Pickles Pub and Sliders Bar & Grille. They're still doing their thing, but man, they were lonely hangouts. The picnic tables are set up, beer still available in ice buckets, music still pumping, but the crowds are gone. Just a few small groups of people on the two days I was around. We've never sat down at either spot, but I always appreciate the energy of places like that and their contributions to their neighborhoods.


So where do I procure a crab cake in a moment when traveling with family members who don't like seafood (which happens on every trip)? Luckily, there's a good seafood shack inside the ballpark. I'm not saying it was as good as the first several crab cakes I ate in Baltimore, but after so many months away, I enjoyed every tender bite.


Plus, I couldn't invest too much in finding my crab cake because we had definitive dinner plans at BricknFire Pizza Co. This place is fantastic. It's a take-out joint that operates out of a small space on the lower level of the Marriott Inner Harbor. On this trip, I learned from the in-house pizza makers that the owner won a food competition in the city and earned the location as her grand prize. We ate pizza here in 2019 and made a point to eat more in 2021. The cheese pie and margherita were remarkable again. By the way, the sweet 'n salty salad is a tremendous addition to your order. I take mine without the red onions, but go ahead and do what you like.


I don't even know if I was hungry the next day. I probably didn't really need breakfast. But you can't leave Baltimore without enjoying breakfast or brunch at Miss Shirley's. Well, you can, and I did a couple of times before realizing it was there. There wasn't as long of a wait this time around, so we dug in....somewhat. Their menu stuns me. I couldn't bring myself to order the chicken 'n waffles or the coconut stuffed French toast. I envisioned a difficult day trying to carry all that around in my body. Maybe I'll get those when the whole family is there to split something. The Cy Young omelet was a great choice, and my son's blueberry pancakes were the real deal. We both believe the true test of a good pancake is whether it can stand up without butter and syrup. These did. And the berry compote that accompanied it made the butter and syrup unnecessary.


On the way home, I needed to refuel the car, so I picked up some fried chicken at the gas station. I know, I know. I would think the same thing you're thinking, EXCEPT we're talking about Royal Farms fried chicken. Here's more grub that I discovered from reading "best of" lists. If enough creditable people and food writers tell me to try this gas station's fried chicken, I'm gonna do it. Excellent decision. I bought some tenders and a spicy chicken sandwich. I knew some would be eaten on the drive and the rest would accompany the Chaps for our road trip-themed dinner in the dining room. That is some chicken! There was good heat in the spice but it didn't overwhelm, and the Old Bay seasoning in the house sauce was classy.


Sights


Everything starts around the Inner Harbor on our trips to Baltimore. We take the downtown exit off I-95 and funnel into the heart of the action. My son remembered seeing electric scooters on the streets two years ago, and he thought we could rent them. Sometimes I'm a grumpy dad and I find reasons not to do something like that. Usually it's because of the safety of my young children or because I envision a stressful outcome. Well, my son is older now, which decreased my uneasiness a bit. But I thought COVID would've kept the scooters off the streets. Not so. Despite having to do things that grumpy dads don't like to do, such as downloading a new app that wasn't my idea to download, it's pretty simple to rent these scooters and start covering a lot of ground, quickly.


I have to say this was worth the money. When walking everywhere, we would be crunched for time to check out various sites when we had only two hours before gates opened at the Orioles game. With the scooter, I saw everything on my initial list in about an hour.

  • Edgar Allan Poe's gravesite at Westminster Hall and Burying Ground

  • Royal Farms Arena, which features an interesting roofline and once served as home of the Baltimore Bullets

  • Lexington Market, a massive marketplace that dates back to 1782

I have to say, these things appeal only to me, and my son was a good sport acting somewhat interested. He just enjoyed riding the scooter around.


Surprised that I completed my list so quickly, we started cruising throughout the Inner Harbor, checking out places in a fraction of the time and energy it would take to walk them. Depending on schedule and budget, I'll keep these scooters in mind for Baltimore and other cities we visit.


Like I said, Fell's Point would've been great to visit again, but the museums were closed while we were in town. Plus, riding an electric scooter over cobblestone (a highly popular surface in Fell's Point) is an intensely tooth-jarring experience. We discovered that by cruising down a side street in the cloistered neighborhood around the Babe Ruth Museum.


The one downer of the trip? Our baseball game was postponed for rain....a cold, bitter rain. With the wind blowing off the water, the nighttime temperatures felt like they were in the 40s or 50s. We waited out the "rain delay of an undefined length" for as long as we could before becoming bone-chilled. We both felt guilty leaving the ballpark, but we figured, in the best scenario, first pitch wouldn't be thrown till 9 p.m. After a 5+ hour drive and time spent exploring the city on scooters, we wouldn't last a night of at least nine innings in wind-blown dampness.


We had strolled around Camden Yards and enjoyed the setting all over again, though it felt like a shell of itself with shuttered food stands and a sparse crowd. And we sat in our seats for a little while and watched the tarp collect rain, so it felt like a trip to the ballpark.


A warm room and hot pizza awaited us at our hotel up Eutaw Street. Our decision to make the call and leave paid off about an hour later when we were fully relaxed in room 414 and I checked for a game update to see that it was postponed to a single-admission doubleheader the next day. The rub with that? I bought my tickets through StubHub, and they refunded me because they considered it a canceled event. I didn't have the option of redeeming my ticket the next day. That was fine, really. They weren't starting till 4 p.m. and we needed to drive back home before then.


Odd as it may sound, getting inside the gates and walking around to see so many of the things I remember seeing during my last visit provided a lot of enjoyment, even if we never saw a pitch thrown. I still haven't watched live baseball since September 2019.


A rainout didn't cap our sightseeing. We spent some more time on the scooters buzzing to and from Miss Shirley's before driving out to see Morgan State University's campus. I admit, sports have made me aware of HBCUs going all the way back to 1984 when I learned about Grambling because of Eddie Robinson and Mississippi Valley State because of Jerry Rice and Willie Totten. I always thought it was cool to learn about players coming from these schools that I'd never heard of, schools that weren't the traditional Big 10, SEC or Big 8 (look it up, young'uns) programs. I enjoy visiting the campuses because there's usually interesting plaques to read about school history and the courageous, determined people who helped create its legacy.


To me, Morgan State is synonymous with two Hall of Famers - Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Willie Lanier and Cleveland Browns running back Leroy Kelly. And you can't forget Tyrone Wheatley, the current football coach.


Holmes Hall at Morgan State University, with the statue of Frederick Douglass in front of the steps


The campus is beautiful, split between a north campus with the historic original buildings and the south campus where the football field, residence halls, etc. are located. I didn't think the campus would be open to visitors, but I was able to stroll around at will and had the place to myself.


Piling into the car to start driving north, I had the same thought I always have when leaving Baltimore: Great trip. Next time, I gotta see...