Behind an unassuming door beside Lexington Market’s main entrance, some of Baltimore’s richest flavors are simmering. Memsahib is the home of colorful, savory Indian cuisine, with the ambience of another time and place. Walking in from the busy street, the atmosphere is immediately calm. Subdued lights and rich-colored wall hangings soothe the senses after a trip through the bustling market. Today, a selection of traditional Indian delicacies are steaming beneath shiny domed lids: Tiki Masala, Saag, lamb curry, and samosas. Each has a depth of color and flavor that is both comforting and exciting. We find a seat with our plates, and meet Ron, founder-owner and operator of Mem Sahib for more than 13 years.
The first thing you notice about Memsahib is the way the room is constructed. The seating area is tiered, with one or two tables per level with a short wall surrounding each. The effect gives each seated party a sense of privacy, overlooking the activity in the rest of the restaurant. Ron explains that the building was constructed this way in the 1970’s for the Palmer House. Despite the ambition inherent in this unique design, this Palmer House location quickly folded. The building housed a series of restaurants over the next couple of decades, but finally stood empty for 4 years before Memsahib opened in 2001.
Today, Memsahib is a contrast to the hubbub of Lexington Market. This, Ron explains, is by design. Memsahib barely advertises. The staff is made up of only 3 full-time employees, with a few part-time workers for certain seasons. And yet, the sense of calm craft that Ron and his staff create in their space has remained consistent for more than a decade. Memsahib thrives on word of mouth, with loyal customers returning year after year. Some have been eating here since the beginning. When you taste the food, it’s no wonder why. It’s food that is Ron’s personal heritage, meals that were on the table during his Punjabi-British childhood. When his family immigrated to Washington D.C., they staffed and opened many successful restaurants around the D.C. and Baltimore areas. It’s a trade that’s now second-nature to Ron, one that’s in his blood.
Memsahib became a pillar institution of Lexington Market, during a trying time in its history. Problems endemic to poverty and city disinvestment plagued the market in the 2000’s. Ron recalls the worst of it right when he opened up shop in 2001, forcing him to create an oasis of delicious relaxation within his four walls. Today he sees marked improvement in the Market’s situation. But there’s still a lot of room to grow. Fully realized, he sees that Lexington Market will become a “Jewel for the City” once again, providing fresh food to a chronically underserved area and an authentic taste of Baltimore to visitors.
To reclaim the greatness that has made Lexington America’s oldest market is a cause close to Ron’s heart. He’s sees the big picture factors that have dragged it down in recent decades. But he’s also hopeful that new management and Baltimore officials are implementing meaningful changes that will turn Lexington Market into one of Baltimore’s greatest landmarks once again. Whatever happens, Ron’s Memsahib will be there through it all. It’s an essential place to enjoy real food, for Market shoppers and people looking for the best Indian cuisine in Baltimore. It’s a unique place and charming respite, one that will continue to be part of the best of Lexington Market for many years to come.
Memsahib is open Monday – Friday, 11:30am – 2:30pm, 6:00pm – 8:00pm and Saturdays 6:00 -8:00 pm.