Not So Starving Artists: Katie Boyts and Chris Attenborough go to Hollins Market

Hollins Market sits windowless in the middle of the Union Square-Hollins Market district in southwest Baltimore, mere minutes from downtown. The neighborhood is one of those pockets of Baltimore city that intrigue me – its sudden quiet and slow pace among the urban backdrop, the several cool little shops that could have perhaps gone (and often do go) unnoticed for years.

I first encountered the market building itself when we went to Mi Ranchito over the summer and was struck by its square largeness, resembling an old short barn in the middle of these lovely blocks, windowless and also a bit tomb-like in its lighting choices.

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The oldest existing public market in Baltimore, Hollins is one long hallway with stalls lining the right and left all the way down, rather than the labyrinth of halls and vendors that twist and turn at Lexington. The hallways in Hollins Market end in a visual climax: a large colorful mural on the back wall, perhaps an attempt to compensate for the lack of light. Several high top tables are perched in front of the mural for visitors to eat at, but it’s clear that this is not a place to put your feet up. No chairs exist.

As we did with Broadway Market, Chris and I entered Hollins with an aim at getting a lot of lunch for very little money. We made one pass down the aisle of vendors to tour our options, a simple route that I appreciated for its directness, although it was a bit haunting, for reasons I’ll get to later.

There were a couple of seafood vendors with oysters and clams and raw fish splayed out under glass. A few meat shops (by the way, here’s a thought: what does one call a person selling meat who is not actually breaking down the meat? Is s/he still a butcher?) A couple of the meat vendors were situated directly across from each other, selling an impressive variety of carnivorous options – fresh oxtail, lamb chops, beef liver, ham hocks, sausages, local Maryland country pudding (which I learned is sort of like sausage but is made of the less popular portions of the pig – jowls, heart, tongue, livers, cheek meat).

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At the front entrance, a convenience store sits awkwardly walled off. A produce stand is nestled in the middle of the hall with a wide variety of very affordable produce and small containers of homemade rice pudding, naturally. Chuckies Fried Chicken possesses a large plot in the market, half dedicated to a sprawling amount of raw chicken for sale, the other half dedicated to its fried chicken. However, we were informed they’ve paused the frying till the beginning of next year. There was a stall with religious wares where a friendly-looking gentleman stood behind the counter speaking loudly and buoyantly with a woman, as evangelists tend to do, about a passage in the Bible.

As for vendors with lunch options, there were several, most of which served a fairly traditional mid-day menu of sandwiches, soups, burgers, and wings. Similar to Broadway Market, although less matriarchal, most of the vendors chose a shop name as direct as that long hallway: Bernie’s, Mike’s, Eddie’s, Jack’s, Johnnie’s, Lauman’s. And then Big Wong as an outlier serving Chinese food. Despite its seemingly lack of creativity, I really like this method of naming. It’s casual and aligns with the neighborly feel that the market already has in the air. No pretension or attempt at cleverness.

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The choice of aesthetics served another commonality among the vendors, many of them donning bright neon poster boards with hand-written menus providing your options in an enthusiastic tone. Chitterling, bacon, fried chicken, BLTs, roast beef sandwiches – all set to the tone of vivid pinks, yellows, oranges and greens. They popped, and something about the consistency in this design made the whole thing work. Had it been one lonely neon sign, perhaps it would have seemed odd or clumsy, but in this context they all together felt brilliant and memorable.

As for lunch, Chris and I parked ourselves at the high-top tables at the end of the hallway and ate the following:

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Eddies Lunch – $3.00 BLT
Eddie’s seemed to be the most popular lunch spot with a buzz around its counter. Judging by its prices, and the tastiness of their BLT, the buzz made sense. That was a model BLT – served on perfectly-toasted white bread, with the proper amount of the only requisite ingredients – bacon, lettuce, tomato, and mayo. Wrapped in white parchment paper, we adored the packaging.

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Bernie’s: $6.50 Roast beef on rye bread
Doubling as a deli meat counter AND a sandwich spot, Bernie’s was run by a small team of industrious-moving Asian women. Standard-sounding sandwiches made up the menu, unapologetically telling you in bright neon that, yes, it is 25 cents extra to toast the bread. I could respect that. Time is money, especially in the food industry.

Their roast beef sandwich – so good, without a pinch of “standard” in it. Piled high on the (non-toasted) rye bread were generous portions of all the sandwich elements, including hot peppers that added a delicious tang and bite. The $6.50 price also bought us a bag of Utz chips and a can of soda. Bernie’s went with foil wrapping, which I’ve always inexplicably been a fan of. Something about your meal being wrapped in foil is a good sign.

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Big Wong – $4.00 Chicken and broccoli on steamed rice.
Big Wong’s reminded me of airport Chinese food. I actually count this is a good thing, always opting for the Chinese food between flights, which Chris balked at. Whatever. Plus, a simple serving of steamed rice with chicken and broccoli is my personal go-to for lunch so we departed from the sandwich theme to visit Wong’s. Unfortunately the dish tasted bland, without any heat, sweetness or other sharp flavors. With their neighbors having set a precedent of tight packaging, Wong’s would have benefitted from slightly better than the styrofoam.

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Mikes – $1 Donut.
Rounding out the meal with the only thing that seemed appropriate – a giant chocolate-glazed and sprinkled huge donut. Without being cloying, it was a lovely, sweet finish to the meal.

Among the neon poster boards and meat, the haunting thing that stands out in Hollins Market is not what is there, but rather what is not. That is – the many empty stalls. Among the mild bustle of the rest of the market, these lonely stalls sit empty, a few of them still with their old signs hanging up like gravestones, advertising salad and soup and their phone number, which is almost guaranteed to be disconnected. I can’t help but wonder about the stories behind these eerily quiet pockets of the long hallway. Do the empty ones haunt the other vendors also, whispering about the threat of failure? Or is just one less competitor to draw away the already-thin crowds?

With renovations coming down the pipeline for the market, even more questions arise: Will these vendors, the ones that are clearly hustling to avoid the fate of some of their neighbors, get pushed out? Who do the developers consider their target audience and how will that direct their design choices? Will they paint over that mural or do away with the neon posterboards? (Please no!) And will there, for the love of God, be more windows?

Time will tell, but till then, I’d recommend exploring the place a bit – the blocks of the neighborhood and ducking into this big barn with its long hallway and delicious donuts. Even the most starving of artists will have a buck to spare at Hollins Market.

Author Katie Boyts is a pastry chef with a love of affordable carbs and the host of the Baltimore chapter of CreativeMornings

All photos by Chris Attenborough.

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