Apr 22, 2010, 09:48AM

Clementine's Taco Tuesday

The cheap eats of Harford Road: Clementine's, Chef Mac's Louisianna Cuisine, The Red Canoe, and of course, The Hamilton Tavern.

I'm a sucker for specials. Burger nights, dollar taco nights, half-price bottle of wine nights—all make my heart beat quicker. I'm also a sucker for the food at Clementine, so when Annie suggested we go there on Taco Tuesday for a belated birthday dinner I was all over that like white on rice.


Much has been made of the Harford Rd. renaissance. I grew up in Baltimore, but until a few years ago I didn't even know where Lauraville and Hamilton were. Lauraville was a vague place, probably out in the county, where my acquaintances went to socially die when they got married, bought houses and started talking about babies. When I heard that someone from the Brewers Art had opened up a restaurant called the Hamilton Tavern, I was faintly confused. When I went there for the first time, I was astounded to learn that Harford Rd. is 10 minutes from Charles Village. I had allotted a half hour for the trip.

Hamilton and Lauraville, nestled above some of the most spookily drug-blighted neighborhoods of Northeast Baltimore, feel like, well, not a different city but definitely not quite Baltimore to me. It brings to mind stereopticon with mis-matched pictures. In one eye-hole is a photo of a broad, leafy street in Portland, Oregon with a detached two story wood frame houses and abundant, verdant greenery and white, with cultured lefties seriously discussing community gardens and charter schools over a meal of locally grown food. In the other eye-hole is a picture of, say, Greenmount Ave., with beauty shops that sell human hair, liquor stores stocked with impressive varieties of malt liquor every few feet, fried chicken joints and dollar stores.

Somehow, through optical illusion or successful gentrification, the two images form a coherent if discordant neighborhood. And there are great restaurants. Chameleon Café has been rated one of the best fine dining restaurants in the country by Zagats. Seriously. Who knew? Chef Mac's Louisiana Cuisine, makes some of the best, tenderest barbeque I've ever had. The Red Canoe has Zeke's coffee, a better than average breakfast and lunch menu, free wifi, and a magical secret garden in the back with gorgeous flowers and wrought iron tables under a canopy and a cat named Lucy twining around legs or haughtily surveying the yard from the fire escape. It would be a great place to write a book.

And Hamilton Tavern, my introduction to the neighborhood is pretty damned near perfect except for its hour wait for a table most of the time. I'm pleased for their success, but it's still annoying.

Clementine does a lovely brunch, and in the days before they got their liquor license one of my favorite happy hour activities was to meet a girlfriend there with a bottle of wine, sit at the tiny bar, and share their charcuterie platter. That man, Winston, makes a pate that will bring tears to your eyes. I confess that their liquor license kind of dampened my enthusiasm. I am a cheapskate and if anything makes my heart flutter more than specials, it's BYOB. Clementine’s booze is reasonably priced, and so is the food, especially when you take into account the quality of the ingredients and the labor-intensive preparation.

There were five of us there on Tuesday night, celebrating my birth a day late. I caught up with Stacey, whom I haven't seen in a coon's age, while we waited for a table and Chris and Renee gravitated directly to the drying room, which is partially glassed-in so you can see the hams and sausages curing, and stood gawking at pig quarters. I cared less about the food that night than the company, and the tacos were perfect for that. Clementine's regular menu is suspended on Tuesdays. You choose one of four kinds of taco platters for $10 each; this week featured beer braised pork, chicken, mahi-mahi, and black bean. There were three salsas to choose from; green, mild, and sort of tingly. You're served a foil packet of four tortillas, and a plate with a choice of filling, mildly seasoned rice, refried bean mush and onions. The tacos were decent and hearty; everyone else took away leftovers and I probably should have too. Instead I nearly cleaned my plate and went home and laid on the couch, sleepy and heavy with food, wishing the remote was close so I could watch something other than CSI: Miami, and that Clementine offered a pate taco.


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