Although many are not aware, Baltimore City has a historic Chinatown located along the 300 block of Park Ave between Saratoga and Mulberry St on the Westside. Blink and you could miss it. I was out and about in Baltimore’s Chinatown this morning with my best friend to have Dim Sum.
We parked on the street in front of the old China Doll restaurant. I love the sign, if the walls could talk you'd hear tales of many a Baltimoreans first taste of Chinese food at this restaurant and the (no longer in existence) White Rice Inn.
Luckily Zhongshan Restaurant is going strong. My friend and I had a gut-busting dim sum brunch for a mere $18. The food was fresh and delicious. When we arrived at 11am we were the only patrons. There were fish tanks filled with lobster and tilapia, oversize enamel vases, sparkling chandeliers, and peach silk tablecloths. As we lingered over steamed dumplings, a large crowd of Asian patrons arrived on a coach bus, an excellent sign of quality cuisine. The dim sum was not served via pushcarts as you might see in a larger establishment. It was served in batches and it tasted cooked-to-order.
Next door to Zhongshan you'll find Potung Oriental Grocery. This store is the place in Baltimore City to buy fresh Asian groceries. Walk in the door and you're instantly transported to an exotic place filled with ingredients sourced from the far east.
I was impressed with the abundance of fresh produce. Lychees, bokchoy, coconut, shrimpcakes, dried fish, spices, it's all there waiting for you. Massive bags of exotic rice were piled high. Fresh Chinese pastries are displayed in a case near the register. I'm told they get a delivery from New York City on Saturday afternoons. The red bean cakes and sweet pork buns were enticing.
You'll also find an extensive selection of teas, spices, beverages, and paper goods such as these red lanterns - all at Potung Trading / Oriental Grocery in Baltimore's Chinatown. Is anyone else besides me feeling inspired to have a Chinese New Year celebration?
Without a doubt there is a fair amount of blight; boarded buildings, abandoned businesses, and broken windows. The glory days of this once bussling Chinese immigrant community are mostly in the past. There have been many persistent attempts to reestablish this neighborhood. Living in Baltimore it's easy to get desensitized to seeing vacant buildings. Want to know more about the history of this community? Click here to read an article written by Baltimore Sun reporter Julie Scharper in 2008.
Is there good real estate to be had in Baltimore's Chinatown? Absolutely. Here is a view of mixed-use buildings on Mulberry St. This location is walking distance from the main branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library. There have been all sorts of rumblings about proposed renovations and development on Baltimore's Westside.
Baltimore's Chinatown is really small but it's well worth a visit particularly if you are in search of dim sum. There is an ongoing dialogue in Baltimore about the future of our Chinatown. These days Baltimore City's Asian community is concentrated further uptown in a nucleus of Korean restaurants known as K-town. Many of the best Chinese restaurants can be found in the Northwest suburbs of Pikesville, Randallstown, and Owings Mills.
I think the addition of a classic Chinatown arch would be a great next-step for Park Ave. It may be too little too late. It's important to preserve what remains and to support the businesses that keep the momentum going. Count me in.