I saw yesterday that census figures were released for my old home of Chicago and that the city is now 28.8% Latino, up 2.8% from 2000. The Latinization of Chicago explains to me why there are so many great restaurants with Mexican, Guatemalan, and other Latin food.
In fact, living in a largely Mexican neighborhood, I got a little jaded about good Mexican food. I assumed that when we moved here to the Baltimore area, Mexican would be nearly as abundant as in the Windy City, with a good burrito or sitdown Mexican restaurant never more than a couple of bocks away.
I've been disappointed, unfortunately. Instead of the little burrito joints, there are chain restaurants like Chik-Filet and Panera never more than a few blocks away.
So the Redhead and I set out to find the best Mexican or Latin food we could find in Baltimore. We excluded DC from the searc because its a bit out of the way, and we know that Jose Andres is doing great things with Spainsh tapas with a New World flair at places like Oyamel and Jaleo. If we need a fix, we can go there for slightly overpriced, but very good Latin food.
The first place we tried was at first pretty good. We found La Fiesta Mexican at 8825 Centre Park Drive while scouting the area for houses. It had a nice atmosphere, good margaritas, excellent vegetarian and seafood-based entrees and perfectly acceptable guacamole. We enjoyed our meals there three times and thought our Mexican food needs were taken care of. But then, something changed. The last two times we ate there, the food was mediocre to dull. The margaritas were OK, but not great, and the spiciness of the food was gone. We think this might be due to what seemed to be a much younger high school aged staff coming on as summer job season set in. We will try it again after school's back in to see if it recovers its mojo.
The second Mexican restaurant we located was not far from the intersection of the Columbia and Baltimore National pikes. Mi Casa Mexican Restaurant at 3355 St. Johns in Ellicott City has somewhat worn decor and booths, but seemed clean and smelled great so we gave it a try. The margaritas were not bad, the guacamole pretty good, and the entrees squarely in the middle of what I've had in Chicago Mexican restaurants. We weren't floored, but the food was much better than the changed food at La Fiesta, and overall I'd say this is a place that can satisfy your Mexican-jones when needed. It seems to be family run, the ingredients are fresh, and they were very accomodating to our requests.
The Redhead's been working long hours, and I don't get to see her much. I've been exploring Baltimore a little and wanted to show her some of what I'd discovered. We parked near the Charles street market and walked around the neighborhood a little before settling on the Blue Agave. The Blue Agave is a bar and restaurant, and both sides of the place were hopping on a Saturday late afternoon. This is more of an upscale Mexican establishment and it shows on the menu of tequilas. We ordered the usual plain rock margaritas and were somewhat disappointed with their sweetness. I'm guessing, but it tasted to me that they're using either a super-sweet sour mix or bottled lime juice.
Our appetizers were excellent. I'd almost put them in the Topolobampo category. I had a sweet and spicy velvet sopa de elote (corn soup), and we both enjoyed the slightly chunky and perfectly seasoned guacamole. The Redhead gave it the highest compliment, saying, "It's almost as good as mine." And she makes very good guacamole. We scooped up the guac with the chips from the table which were warm and generally good, but the red corn chips that came with the nachos were stale tasting.
We looked forward to the entrees, but when they came, we both had the same complaint - there was no salt used at all. I had a salmon veracruz that needed more seasoning, and the salmon itself was overcooked. The Redhead's vegetarian enchiladas had a bit of spice, but again no salt or seasoning. With no salt shakers or hot sauce on teh table, we used a little of the salt off the rim of her glass to season up the food to make it edible. I also ordered a side of squash and pumpkin seeds and got a small ramekin of oily squash with no pumpkin seeds at all. And no sesoning, of course.
Blue Agave is very close to being a great Mexican restaurant, but they need to actually taste the food they prepare. I appreciate their wanting to not over-salt their food, but they've gone too far the other way.
Last night, we decided to get serious and consulted the Baltimore City Paper's Best of Baltimore issues for the past few years. Pretty consistently Los Amigos ranked as the best Mexican restaurant, winning 3 times since 2000. Well heck, that's promising, right?
We gave it a go last night and I have to say we left pretty disappointed. Now, please remember we're looking at this from a pescetarian viewpoint. It may very well be that Los Amigos is ranked best based on their chicken and beef dishes, but that's not what we eat and so its not what we experienced.
The margaritas were very disappointing. We'd hoped with the authentic-looking menu that we'd be getting some of the good stuff, but it was more sour mix with too much sugar. A good margarita should be fresh and lively, not unbearably sweet.
I can say the salsa at Los Amigos was excellent as were the table chips, which were warm and crispy. They served not only the usual red salsa, but a white crema and jalapeno (and cumin?) blend they called white salsa. It was interesting and something I might try to create a version of on my own.
The entrees and appetizers were acceptable, but nothing to write home about. My chiles rellenos were stuffed with a low flavor, high heat retention mix of potatoes and a bit of cheese, and the coating was soggy. Having just made really good chiles rellenos, I was particularly disappointed.
We finished with a fried ice cream dish that we don't think was fried much or very proximately to the time we ordered it. It was not bad, with the bizzare but charming addition of sprinkles, but not as good as other fried ice creams I've had.
So what up, Baltimore? Where's that hole-in-the-wall place you don't tell anyone about that has truly excellent Mexican? Am I going to have to give my Mexican restaurant dollar to DC? If you have a Mexican place in the greater Baltimore region to recommend, please do in the comments. I'll be watching with great hope that you'll turn us on to a place that will convince me that the best place for Mexican in Maryland is not our kitchen.
La Fiesta Mexican Restaurant
8825 Centre Park Dr # B
Columbia, MD 21045
Mi Casa Mexican Restaurant
3355 Saint Johns LN
Ellicott City, MD 21042
Blue Agave Restaurant
1032 Light St
Baltimore, MD 21230
5506 Harford Rd
Baltimore, MD 21214