From a young age, chef and restaurant owner Jasmine Norton was the adventurous eater in her family. The nearly lifelong Baltimore, Maryland resident started eating raw oysters at seven years old, and she credits her father for always encouraging her to try new things.
By the time Jasmine was old enough to start making dinner plans with friends, it was apparent to her that most of her friends were not up for sushi, raw oysters or any other type of uncooked fish or seafood. Like any good visionary, Jasmine saw an opportunity.
The idea for The Urban Oyster grew out of her love of seafood, as well as a desire to encourage African Americans to expand their palates. Jasmine knew that her friends and family were open to eating cooked seafood (a staple of any Marylander’s diet), so she decided to meet them where they were.
In 2016, she opened The Urban Oyster with the intention of selling food that the local community will eat. It’s the first female- and black-owned oyster bar in the United States. The concept took off quickly, to the point that The Baltimore Sun nominated their cream of crab for Best Crab Soup. When Jasmine and her mom (and business partner) opened The Urban Burger Bar, they quickly received the Best Burger nomination.
Jasmine & Mom at The Urban Burger Bar — Photo courtesy of Brian Cicioni
Despite these accolades, Jasmine is one of the most humble people you’ll ever meet in the food industry. She’s just as likely to talk about her native Baltimore as she is to boast of what she’s achieved in such a short period of time. From corner snowball stands to upscale dining establishments, these are her top ten favorite food spots in Charm City.
Crust by Mack
Crab pie from Crust by Mack — Photo courtesy of Brian Cicioni
Crust by Mack sells sweet and savory palm-sized pies out of the Whitehall Market in Hampden. If you come here on Sunday, you’ll likely see a line from the back of the market area to the main entrance (where Crust by Mack is located). People queue up for the crab pies, which often sell out in 15 minutes or less.
Jasmine enjoys the crust as much as the filling. The pies are soft and warm like a biscuit and flaky like a croissant, and they offer both sweet and savory options. After crab, the chicken meatballs marinara is the second most popular.
Co-owner Amanda Mack suggests eating her pies with both hands. They reheat well, but it’s always best to take advantage of the dining area and enjoy them fresh out of the oven.
Jasmine holding a tofu brah at Ekiben Fells Point — Photo courtesy of Brian Cicioni
Ekiben’s menu manages to cover much of the world with just six buns and bowls. The Neighborhood Bird is a nod to co-owner Steve Chu’s Taiwanese heritage and current city of Baltimore. Jasmine prefers the Tofu Brah, with its spicy peanut sauce, which is a nod to Southeast Asian cooking.
The Tackle Box is southern-centric with crispy catfish and roasted garlic. While the menu claims that the slow-cooked lamb (Borrego) is the messiest, that’s kind of like asking what time of the year is the hottest in Bangkok.
Jasmine prefers the bowls, which have the same ingredients as the buns, but without the bun. The Fells Point location is like a revolving door, to the point where it’s difficult to pose in front of the sign for an Instagram pic. If it’s your first time, consider hanging around and asking the people in line what’s good (besides everything!).
Ekiben also has a Hampden location.
The Food Market
Maryland crab soup with extra crab meat — Photo courtesy of Brian Cicioni
The Food Market is one of the hottest dinner and Sunday brunch spots along the bustling Hampden thoroughfare, known locally as “The Avenue.” Seven days a week, they serve modern American food out of a former grocery store.
Jasmine comes here for the comfort food, which makes up the majority of the menu. The French onion rings are her personal favorite, but she also enjoys the lobster fingers and mozzarella sticks.
The hearty roasted beef short rib dinner is her go-to entrée. The smooth and silky cream of crab soup topped with Old Bay is also popular. You can order it with extra crab meat.
Gunther & Co.
Jasmine loves the pineapple upside down cake at Gunther & Co. — Photo courtesy of Brian Cicioni
Gunther & Co. is the most upscale of Jasmine’s top ten recommendations. According to Norton, “It doesn’t look like it belongs in Baltimore, but I’m glad it’s here.”
While she loves their spicy Thai seafood hot pot and the Alaskan cod with ramen, it’s the ambiance that pushes Gunther & Co. into her top ten. She’s also crazy about their (seasonal) pineapple upside down cake.
The desserts are made in-house by their dedicated pastry chef, Jess, and each one sounds more exquisite than the next. Ever tried lemongrass ginger crème brûlée? Or blackberry and passion fruit pavlova?
Ice Queens Snowball Shop
Jasmine with Ice Queens owner, Dasia Kavia — Photo courtesy of Brian Cicioni
For Jasmine Norton, no Baltimore food tour is complete without a snowball. Ice Queens is her personal favorite.
They make New Orleans-style snowballs, which is what the Baltimore version is most often compared to. According to Jasmine, snowballs should be smooth; you should not have to chew the ice.
Out of the 50 different flavors, she prefers the egg custard, which is a local favorite. They also have a dozen different combo flavors like candyland, mango tango and mystery.
Lobster Regina is Jasmine’s go-to dish at La Scala — Photo courtesy of Brian Cicioni
There are more than a dozen different Italian restaurants and cafes in Little Italy, but Jasmine keeps going back to La Scala. As a Baltimore native, she’s been visiting the area since childhood.
While the lobster Regina is her favorite dish, it’s not the first thing she mentions when you bring up La Scala. From the friendly bartenders to the bocce court and overall ambiance, even the most jaded of diners has to appreciate this place. The overall atmosphere is festive and welcoming. They even have a communal table, which is a rarity among modern Italian restaurants.
Don’t get too fixated on the menu. They have daily specials. Try the branzino, which they fillet at your table. This is also a restaurant where you don’t want to skip dessert. Their cannoli cream is lighter than you’ll find at most places.
Mi & Yu Noodle Bar
Fried Thai curry shrimp with ramen at Mi & Yu — Photo courtesy of Brian Cicioni
This no-frills, fast-casual local chain is Jasmine’s favorite noodle bar in Charm City. She prefers the small, quaint Federal Hill location. Grab a seat by the window and watch the goings-on in one of Baltimore’s most desirable neighborhoods while you slurp your bowl of ramen or devour a messy bao.
Each noodle bowl is made to order with your chosen noodles, protein and broth. Jasmine goes for the fried Thai curry shrimp with ramen noodles in the savory Filipino adobo duck broth. Mi & Yu also has noodle bowls without broth (mazemen), as well as a half-dozen different bao options.
Mr. Bill’s Terrace Inn
Jasmine holding a hard shell crab at Mr. Bill’s Terrace Inn — Photo courtesy of Brian Cicioni
Mr. Bill’s Terrace Inn has been serving Maryland’s messiest and most popular seafood dish since 1956. They continue to thrive in an area replete with crab houses. Jasmine makes the journey here (from Baltimore city to county) regularly to enjoy her favorite hard shell crabs.
She usually orders at least a dozen for herself. According to Jasmine, “Maryland crabs should have a hint of sweetness. And they have to be cooked just right, with the right seasoning. If they are mushy, that means they are overcooked.”
Despite Mr. Bill’s extensive, two-sided menu, most patrons come here for the hard shell crabs. It’s apparent when you enter, as the inside smells like a mix of ocean and Old Bay. Crabs are not listed on the menu. Your server comes to your table and tells you the available size(s) and the day’s market price per pound.
Jasmine prefers the larger ones, but is willing to settle for medium and above. According to her, “Their small is more like medium, and medium is more like the large ones you find elsewhere.”
The crabs are served with generous helpings of seasoning to the point where you won’t need to ask for extra. But you can buy seasoning to go. The salty, smoky and peppery mix also goes well with guacamole, peanuts, popcorn or potatoes.
Tandav Indian Cuisine
Jasmine usually orders the salmon tikka masala with garlic naan — Photo courtesy of Brian Cicioni
Jasmine recommends any of Tandav‘s tikka masala dishes, but she prefers the salmon, which she enjoys combining with the garlic naan (kulcha on their menu)
While you won’t find the salmon version of Tandav’s most popular dish in India, there’s no denying how well the creamy curry goes with their slightly crispy, fresh-out-of-the-oven naan. Lamb roganjosh is their second most popular dish.
The Urban Oyster
Jasmine with her father at The Urban Oyster — Photo courtesy of Beck Stavely
This was Jasmine Norton’s first eatery. She started eating raw oysters around age seven, but found that well into adulthood, most of her friends and family were still afraid to try them. So she decided to meet them where they were – with chargrilled oysters. And in 2016, The Urban Oyster was born.
While they do sometimes sell raw oysters, the menu is centered around quirky oyster combos like Cheese Louise, Volcano Oy, and BBC (which stands for bacon, BBQ, cheddar). They also serve fried oysters, oyster tacos and other seafood combos.
And then there are the Maryland-centric burgers, which were Jasmine’s inspiration for her latest business venture, The Urban Burger Bar. There is some overlap between the two menus.