2010.05.20 Harbor East Deli

Late last year, one of my favorite lunch spots in the Harbor East area of Baltimore closed down. Elevation Burger served over-priced organic burgers on a bun that was never quite substantial enough, but the fries were perfection. And, given the right-round-the-corner proximity to my job, I was a regular until the franchisee parted ways with the franchise, and the doors closed, leaving me with a 10-minute drive to the Canton Five Guys for my weekly burger-and-fries fix.

The owner of the Harbor East Elevation Burger retained the site, completely renovated the space, and recently reopened as Harbor East Deli and Pizzeria. The new restaurant offers burgers and fries, although the burgers appear more mundane and the fries are provided by Boardwalk. They also serve a daily variety of pizza by the slice and a menu of sandwiches named after businesses in the area, including the Laureate - a grilled chicken sandwich named for my employer.

Since the opening, I have resumed my weekly visits with increasingly positive results. On my first visit, I tried the H&S, a Reuben named after the local bakery and served on their rye bread. The sandwich featured a generous portion of corned beef, but felt a little light on the kraut. And, much as I appreciate a call-out to the local guys, the soft rye bread from H&S was just not up to the task of supporting meat, melted cheese, kraut, and dressing. The sandwich fell apart while I was eating it. I also tried the new fries. The skinny shoestrings fried in olive oil have been replaced with the fairly run-of-the-mill Boardwalk fries available at any mall. Overall, if you want a Reuben, Atman's on Lombard Avenue is still your best choice, and their potato knish beats any order of fries.

The following week, I tried the Legg Mason - turkey, bacon, American cheese and avocado. Again, the meat portion was very generous, as was the avocado. The bacon was overdone, though, and did not add to the sandwich. It was easily removed, and the rest of the sandwich was very good. My side on this visit was macaroni and cheese. First, I cannot express my joy at having this ultimate comfort food so close to the office. Just seeing it on the menu made my stressed-out and over-worked heart sing with joy. And, it did not disappoint. Tender elbow macaroni in an ample amount of flavorful cheese sauce with none of the trappings that can over-complicate this dish, it tasted like it came right out of the pot. No fancy gourmet cheese or croutons interfered with the satisfying simplicity of this perfect side. The serving is just the right size to partner with a small juice and replace the 3:00 PM coffee-and-cookie pick-me-up routine I am prone to. 

This week, I went all out and had the Harbor Beast - roast beef, swiss cheese and horseradish mayo on a soft sub roll, warmed just enough for the cheese to melt. It was like a cheese steak but without the side effects of all those grilled onions. Sometimes you want 'em, but when you don't this is a great alternative. And, despite its name, it is not a gut-buster. The flavors are a classic combination that work together well. The portion was appropriate for a lunch-time meal and satisfied without over-filling. I ordered chips on the side, which I ignored in favor of desert. On this visit, I noticed the carrot cake.

Of course, a separate paragraph is required for this quintessential confection and primary fixation of my sweet tooth. The carrot cake featured at Harbor East Deli is moist and tender, slightly more spicy than sweet. While the earthy sweetness of the carrot is subdued, this cake is refreshingly uncluttered with nary a walnut or raisin to be found. The icing is white and creamy, but seems lighter than a full-on cream cheese icing and missing the characteristic tang as well. But, the slice of cake is topped with a happy orange carrot decoration that is definitely traditional cream cheese icing and made my incisors throb when I bit into it. It was a pleasant surprise on a busy day and got me through what turned into another working lunch. 

Harbor East Deli has a liquor license and serves a nice selection of beer, both bottled and on tap. Other menu items include several variations on the cheesesteak, a crabcake sandwich, and a Powerhouse. A word of warning to Powerhouse aficionados - the Harbor East Deli Powerhouse is missing the requisite hummus. I may try it anyway if only to offer this critique to the owner. Who, by the way, is still an active participant in the lunch rush. On my visits, he was expediting orders, always with the genuine smile of someone who enjoys their work. That in itself makes a difference in the daily ritual of trying to find lunch.