Goldfish crackers top mac and cheese

Christina Tkacik
Baltimore Sun

BALTIMORE — Chad Wells made a name for himself at Baltimore’s Alewife and later went on to appear on various Food Network shows. But it’s having a family that has taught him more than anything else about how to cook. There’s a difference, Wells says, between “how people eat, versus how you want them to eat.”

Case in point: Wells’ own son, now 9, has decided he won’t eat anything green, even if his dad has cooked it. “My son is pizza all the way,” Wells says. “Straight cheese.”

The process of trying to feed his own kids has translated into the kitchen at Walker’s Tap & Table, where Wells has been executive chef since it opened, just a few months before the pandemic. Here, Wells is cooking up crowd-pleasing dishes like crab mac and cheese with goldfish crackers and microgreens, or specials like soft-shell crabs dusted in Cheetos. “I do dumb stuff with them,” Wells said, sitting at a booth in the restaurant’s Glenwood dining room. A white fabric canopy and bubble lights have turned this strip mall storefront into an oasis. In one corner, the flames of a brick oven dart to heat up pizzas and a team of cooks prepares wings, salads and busting-at-the-seams burgers.

Happiness: Wells says he used to take a more cerebral approach to food, caring more about what his peers might think of his food than the actual people eating it. Now, he says, “I’m not cooking for me,” he says. “I just want to make food that people really like. I like to make food that makes people happy.”

It might not win him a James Beard award, but the guest-first philosophy has certainly won fans in this suburban-meets-rural part of Howard County, where Walker’s has fast become a go-to dining destination.

“Around here, there’s not a lot of restaurants,” said Wells. “We’re kind of in farmland.” Aging farmhouses and even a dilapidated log cabin can be seen on the drive to the restaurant, located on Route 97 just off the Baltimore National Pike.

Wells lives with his family just a short drive away and says he enjoys feeling part of the community where he’s building roots. On his days off, guests from the restaurant will sometimes recognize him at the grocery store and ask him what’s for dinner. “My kids love it here.”

A diner at the restaurant might never know of the behind-the-scenes chaos that his and other businesses have faced the past year: the health scares, the shortage of everything from labor to chicken wings.

“Supply has been complicated,” Wells said, taking a break before the lunch crush. Most recently, it’s crab that’s been an issue. “I can’t find it,” he says. “I don’t know what’s going on.”

Through it all, Walker’s Tap & Table has remained steady, doing everything from pivoting to carryout to selling whole chickens to diners when grocery stores began to run out last year. “We didn’t evolve with COVID,” Wells said. “COVID evolved us.”

And the staff has worked hard to accommodate all guests, regardless of their COVID-19 comfort levels. Tables are spaced far apart for social distancing, and an outdoor tent allows people to dine al fresco if they want. The restaurant is still doing a brisk carryout business, even as on-premises diners pack the restaurant every night of the week. The past year, though chaotic, has helped

cement the relationship with guests more than ever — just as Wells wants it to be.