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Joy America Cafe: Alice In Wonderland

Players: Samantha and moi

Act I: Finding the right Rabbit Hole

So Sam is in Baltimore visiting a friend and wants to do lunch on Saturday. I blithely agree, not realizing how much of a pain it is trying to find a good restaurant in B'more that is open for lunch on Saturday. So, I try my site of first resort: opentable and they only have a few restaurants that are available, most of which didn't seem too attractive. I would have chosen to go to the Black Olive, but that's a place that you go to for dinner in order to get the full impact. All my favorites (Saffron, Brass Elephant, Tio Pepe, etc.) were closed. Grrr. So, after looking around some more, I discovered Joy America Cafe which is in the American Visionary Art Museum. Never having been to AVAM, and not having a clue as to what "Visionary Art" was, I was intrigued. I tried finding reviews of Joy America Cafe on the web, but that proved to be as elusive as trying to discover what visionary art meant. There were a handful of short, non-insightful reviews (and while this review may be non-insightful, it won't be short. That I promise!) on AOL CityGuide, Frommers and the like, but nothing substantive. However, the few morsels of information that were present were interesting enough for me to decide on Joy for lunch (sic). Reservations , of course, were made through Opentable.

Act II: Wonderland

Getting to the museum is easy. It's located in Federal Hill on Key Highway and is close enough to walk to from the Baltimore Science Museum and that part of the Inner Harbor. If you are coming from the Inner Harbor, you will see an old brick building with the museum name written on it. If you turn into the street just in front of the museum, there is a decent amount of metered parking. When we got there at around noon, there wee still about a dozen spots left. However, when we left at 3pm, I don't think there was a single open parking space there.

The museum, at first glance, seems kitschy. The front facade is a mosaic of blue glass, which is attractive but makes you wonder what the inside will be like. When looking at the works inside, it was hard to characterize what visionary art meant. We decided that it might be folk art with a modern twist to it. The variety of art in there is amazing. I think the most attractive quality of the museum and it's exhibits is the approachability and touchability of the pieces. A sense of delight descends upon you while going around the museum -- from the amusing robots made of recycled materials to the sequin-encrusted bed and mermaids -- the whole museum elicits a sensawunda.

The Joy America Cafe itself is located on the third floor of the museum. Just tell the nice folks over at the front desk that you are eating at the Cafe and they will provide you with a personal escort right to it.

Act III: A Mad Tea Party

The restaurant itself seems moderately sized. As you enter, the left side is full of tables and the right right is more of a bar area. The decor seems to be minimalist modern with a twist. At the very least, it was pleasant and went tolerably well with the museum theme. The dining area has a large arced window that has a view of the inner harbor. I'm told that it looks even better at night. When we got there, there was virtually no one in the restaurant, and I kinda felt foolish for making reservations. However, by the time 1pm rolled around, the place was full. The crowd frequently the place leaned towards the middle-aged range, and was very obviously contained a representative sample from the more, umm, art-aware citizenry.

We got seated immediately and got a table that was close to the view of the inner harbor (though it would be hard to get a table that didn't have some part of the view). Our server was friendly and very helpful (as well as being attractive and having an accent that was music to my ears). The menus were quirky and amusing. Both of us had menus with different covers. The inside of the menu consisted of artistically torn pieces of paper taped with various decorative stickers to sturdy paper backing. Overall, a very nice effect.

The menu items themselves showed strong evidence of southwestern and latin influences. For the most part, the dishes were not vegetarian, but there were at least a couple of appetizers and entrees that were vegetarian (and they try to be vegan-friendly in those dishes according to our server). Admittedly, seafood is a highlight of the menu.

Act IV: Eat me, Drink Me

We started off with a couple of drinks: the Chocolate Rasberry and the Dark & Stormy. The former is one of the better chocolate cocktails I've ever had -- mixed perfectly so that all the flavors blended together. The latter was a strong mixture of rum and ginger beer (real ginger beer). They also had the standard mojito and caiprinha on the menu along with a few other cocktails. The bar, I'm sure, could make anything that you wanted.

We couldn't quite decide what we wanted since pretty much everything looked good. We decided to start off with an appetizers and finally settled on the Empanaditas. The stuffing in the empanaditas had just been changed from a vegan-friendly mix of various vegetables to a mixture of ham, shrimp and rice. This was served on a sauce of jalapenos and rice. The empanaditas were good, and tasted even better with the sauce. Our server mentioned that the sauce was made out of rice instead of cream or other dairy products to keep it vegan. Of course, with the new stuffing, they kept the sauce the same because so many people liked it.

Of course, now that we had our appetizer, we had to decide on the rest of the meal. In what is becoming a trend for me, we decided on finishing off with more appetizers. We ordered a ceviche and a chalupa. The ceviche was a tuna and shrimp ceviche with lime, habaneros and garlic. It was absolutely delicious. The chalupa was a crispy flatbread with potatoes, chorizo sausage, and roasted garlic. It tasted good and was very filling (which our server had warned us it would be). At this point, we decided not to order anything more since we wanted to have dessert. There were several more dishes I wanted to try: the black bean soup, another ceviche, some of their salads, their crab cake entree and their tuna entree. All those sounded good, and I guess that's going to have to wait for another trip to Joy America.

The dessert menu looked good enough to be the whole meal. We ended up ordering the "Seven Tastes of Chocolate" and "Tres Leches de Joy". The former being seven different and great chocolate items, and the latter being a version of the standard Tres leches, with coconut flan, a creme brulee and a caramel flan (I think). Both of the desserts were very good. If I did have more of an appetite, I would have tried the chocolate cherry empanadas, too.

Act V: Conclusion

I loved the Cafe. The food was good, the view wonderful and the service great. They also seem to have a good bartender and some awesome desserts. It helps that the cafe is inside the museum, both from a stylistic perspective as well as an contextual one.

Ratings

Joy America Cafe Review
Service Friendly, Quick, and Helpful
Decor Modern minimalist with a twist
Food Delicious & Intriguing nouveau southwestern

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