Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Food Poisoning on a Budget, Or A Review of Dining Options In and Around the Baltimore Convention Center

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics: ,

comic 49 - convention center food

Another anime convention weekend away from home is another opportunity to live a few days the way mother nature intended us to—shelling out tons of cash at destination hotels and restaurants. This past weekend marked our first trip to the Baltimore Convention Center in three years, and boy how things have changed. Instead of being a noisy, obnoxious tourist trap, Baltimore has quickly transformed itself into a noisier, even more obnoxious tourist trap. Seriously, I expect Baltimore will be annexed by Hell itself within the next decade.

With home a 90-minute drive away, we had to rely on whatever food-like entities we could procure in the area for three days. We sampled a broad spectrum of culinary creations ranging from the barely edible to the questionably legal. Here now is a review of some of the food options we explored that await travelers hitting up Downtown Baltimore and the surrounding areas for a weekend of conventiony goodness, starting with the best and working our way down the depths of the Baltimore food abyss.

BWI Embassy Suites Continental Breakfast

We ate there: Friday, Saturday and Sunday for breakfast

I’ll start things off with the best of the food we encountered over the weekend, and it was just steps from our hotel room near BWI Airport. Included in the price of the room was a complimentary assortment of breakfast dishes served for several hours each morning. Options included typical fare such as eggs, sausage, chipped beef, cereals, breads, coffee, and juices as well as cooked-to-order omelets and—my favorite—make-your-own Belgian waffles. Oh man, those waffles were amazing. You just pour in your batter, close the lid, turn it around, and you’ve got yourself Waffle Heaven in two minutes. Available toppings included a giant barrel of butter, strawberries drowned in syrup, and a few other fruit choices that varied by day. My only complaint was that the timers on the waffle makers were kind of flaky. Sometimes they wouldn’t go off at all, while others they went off too early. Of the seven waffles I had over three days, three experienced minor issues. But still, this was a great treat that got our days started right.

Nick’s Rating: Completely un-poisonous!
Cost: $0 (approximately $30 value)

Burke’s Restaurant and Cafe

We ate there: Saturday for dinner

By late Saturday afternoon, around 20,000 convention-goers had mobbed every single restaurant within half a mile of the Baltimore Convention Center. We tried to get a table for seven at The Cheesecake Factory adjacent to the Inner Harbor, but the wait would have been nearly two hours. After walking a few more blocks, we stumbled upon Burke’s, a restaurant on the lower floor of some sort of comedy club. They were busy too, so our party was seated at two separate booths. The hostess quietly muttered that we guys were killing her.

The food at Burke’s was pretty good, though anything would have tasted good after eight hours of hard convention labor. I had a soft crab cake sandwich which turned into more of a two-pieces-of-bread-that-I-ate-first-and-then-I-ate-the-soft-crabs deal, but it was still tasty. I also ordered a side of potato pancakes with applesauce that rocked out in my mouth. My wife and I washed it all down with a bottle of white zin. Having become accustomed to the cheapest bottle of restaurant wine anywhere near DC running at least $20, we were surprised that this one only ran $12. We wished we had had two!

Nick’s Rating: Largely edible!
Cost: $25 for food (though our convention paid for that), $12 for alcohol

Potbelly’s Sandwich Works

We ate there: Friday for lunch (carried out)

Having been sent on an errand to the nearby Best Buy (which wasn’t as nearby as we’d thought), I swung by the Potbelly’s across the street to snag some lunch in an attempt to avoid eating whatever the Baltimore Convention Center itself was serving. The line was long, as Potbelly’s lines usually are at lunchtime. After 20 minutes or so, I finally emerged with two chicken salad sandwiches on wheat and a bottle of IBC Cream Soda. My wife loves that cream soda, so I got her one so she wouldn’t mind my flirtations with convention-going costumed catgirls as much. The sandwiches themselves were all right but a little light on the chicken salad. But at least it wasn’t Convention Center food…

Nick’s Rating: It was food!
Cost: $11


We ate there: Friday for dinner

After a hard day at the convention, we were rewarded with a short walk to the nearby First Mariner Arena and a concert of my favorite Japanese band of all time, JAM Project. Before standing in line for the general admission seating, we took a walk across the street to the only quick-service food joint we could see—7-Eleven. I tried out the 2-for-$2.22 hot dogs while my wife went with the Polish Kielbasa which appeared to just be a hot dog painted gray. The one saving grace of these 7-Eleven hot dogs came in the form of my favorite button of all time—the “Push For FREE Chili” button. I’ve never pushed a button so hard and for so long in my life. Really, 7-Eleven would have made more money off of me selling the chili with a “Push for FREE Hot Dog” button. The dogs and chili themselves were mediocre (what do you expect?), but they kept us going for the next few hours of line-standing and concert-watching.

Nick’s Rating: Food was blah, button was fantastic
Cost: $5 (including a bag of chips)

Baltimore Convention Center Refreshment Stand

We ate there: At the brink of starvation—I mean, Saturday and Sunday for lunch

In the deepest, darkest depths of the BCC sat a seemingly innocuous refreshment booth serving a limited menu of burgers, hot dogs, fries, and other demi-foods. I traveled there first on Saturday mid-afternoon as work at the convention was furious and further journeying for food was not an option. I went for a pre-packaged Caesar salad while my wife had the “chicken tenders with fries.” The salad was mostly green and brown lettuce with a few stale croutons and two cherry tomatoes. It was a chore to finish, but I ate it all fearing that I’d malnourish myself and be rushed to a Baltimore hospital whose food would be about twelve miles below the bottom of this list. My wife indicated that the chicken and fries were, indeed, chicken and fries. I tried one of the fries and wished I hadn’t.

I returned Sunday just before takedown of the convention began looking to try the burger. When I arrived, I was told that the only remaining items were the cheesesteak subs. I ordered two, at which point I was told the following ingredients were no longer available:

  • Sub rolls
  • Cheese
  • My dignity

Desperately hungry, I ordered it anyway and ended up receiving giant piles of processed shredded steak-ish meat covering hot dog rolls. It took almost 30 minutes to get through the whole pile, at which point I realized just how terrible the steak-ish meat really was. I mean, it was horrible. I spent the next 20 minutes in the restroom regretting the day that cow was ever born. The fact that the kind lady in the refreshment booth gave me over a pound of the stuff normally would have kept me quiet no matter how bad it was. But it was a new breed of bad, sort of like murderous gangsters who go on to become serial rapists who target blind people.

Nick’s Rating: Stomach-shatteringly awful
Cost: The usual BCC rip-off-because-we-can prices—about $25 on Saturday and $16 on Sunday for two people

The next time you find yourself in the Baltimore Convention Center area, be sure to carefully choose your dining options as there are plenty to pick from at a variety of price points. And if you’re planning to eat at the BCC itself, don’t forget to update your will first… or at least stay away from the Sunday leftovers.

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