From Too Many Chefs - www.toomanychefs.com

August 16, 2006
Where's the Good Mexican in Baltimore?

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.

Restaurants Mentioned:
La Fiesta Mexican Restaurant
8825 Centre Park Dr # B
Columbia, MD 21045
(410) 997-7182

Mi Casa Mexican Restaurant
3355 Saint Johns LN
Ellicott City, MD 21042
(410) 480-2900
http://www.micasamd.com/

Blue Agave Restaurant
1032 Light St
Baltimore, MD 21230
(410) 576-3938
blueagaverestaurant.com

Los Amigos
5506 Harford Rd
Baltimore, MD 21214
(410) 444-4220
losamigosbaltimore.com

Posted by Barrett in Maryland at August 16, 2006 8:28 AM
Comments

Ah, finally I can pipe up. The City Paper has rarely led us down the wrong path, but there are a couple clunkers here and there.

I agree that Los Amigos isn't as great as everyone says -- but the little takeaway place Los Amigos Dos, which was run, I believe, by the Los Amigos' owner's son, was AMAZING. That's over in Towson, and I think he's actually packing up for another venture soon so it might not be open. That kid's got a gift, seriously.

I like Blue Agave, but try Kiko's -- a strip mall masterpiece (8806 Belair Road, Nottingham, MD 21236). A bit off into the suburbs, but it was just named best Mexican by Baltimore Magazine a month or so ago, and is just wonderful.

Posted by Kat on August 16, 2006 at 12:45 PM

Oh, and I'm vegetarian so that's probably why I feel the same way about Los Amigos. My carnivorous boyfriend loves them (but agrees about Los Amigos Dos, too, and loves Kiko's more). Kiko's has two delicious veg dishes - enchiladas potosinas and chile rellenos - and I know I've seen a few fish specials here and there too.

Posted by Kat on August 16, 2006 at 12:51 PM

Kat, great suggestions - thanks. Maybe we'll give Blue Agave another try, but there's no way I would have tried Los Amigos Dos or Kiko's without your rec. Now, I will.

Posted by barrett on August 16, 2006 at 12:52 PM

You're most welcome! I think you'll love Kiko's -- Los Amigos Dos isn't quite as veggie-friendly, but they've got a lovely big burrito and to-do-for fried plantains. According to knowledgeable-daughter-of-boyfriend, Marco is shutting it down at the end of the month, but says he'll be back somewhere new soon.

They're both sort of at different ends of the casual dining spectrum... Los Amigos Dos has a couple of tables and is more of a takeaway joint, and Kiko's is a charming sit-down oasis in the middle of a slightly grubby strip mall.

Oh, and one more -- Salsa Grill in Woodlawn. In an even shabbier strip mall, less polished than Kiko's and with a Spanish-Peruvian vibe. Great salsa, boring chips, great tamales and pupusas, lots of fish. If we didn't like Kiko's so much we'd go there all the time.

Posted by Kat on August 16, 2006 at 1:45 PM

Are the Rick Bayless restaurants there any good? He seems to be so enthusiastic about Mexican cuisine.

Posted by Francine on August 17, 2006 at 12:00 AM

Francine, the two I've been to - Topolobampo and the attached Frontera are outstanding.

The drinks are amazing, the food creative and perfectly done. He really does elevate Mexican food to the tops of fine dining. And you see him around the place all the time. I've been there a half dozen times and seen him on four of those visits.

Definitely make a reservation for Topolobampo if you visit Chicago (or live there) or if you can't get a reservation, head to Frontera next door and hover over a table in the back. It's you-grab-it, it's yours seating at Frontera and that's exactly how we got a place for our last big restaurant meal in Chicago before leaving. And it was great.

Posted by barrett on August 17, 2006 at 9:32 AM

I'm not from Maryland, but having lived in Texas, and California and now in Oklahoma. I have found that if you stay off the restaurant rows that every city has and go to the small mom and pop owned mexican restaurants you will be pleasantly surprised. These are the ones that make their guacamole fresh, chop their own meat, and make their own tortillas, corn or flour. They are also very eager to accomodate. When I'm craving mexican, i stay away from the chain restaurants and fast food and head for the small privately owned restaurant.

Posted by Vicki on August 19, 2006 at 4:06 PM

We recently moved back to B'more, and we've been on the lookout for good Mexican (especially veggie and seafood-based) ever since. We've found a few somewhat decent places - like Holy Frijoles in Hampden - but it seems like most Mexican restaurants in town are very overpriced, and not all that impressive taste-wise.

We lived in a small town in Georgia before this, and were used to having an excellent and extremely cheap Mexican joint in town (we're talkin' shrimp fajitas for two and a pitcher of ritas for about $11 total), so we're kind of perplexed.

Posted by platypotamus on August 22, 2006 at 10:37 AM

zip on down to annapolis some time. we've got a surprisingly large latino population. My favorite place is on the corner of ol solomons road and forest drive near the value city. There are only one or two menus in english, telemundo or univision is always on tv, and the food is excellent. This place isn't high end but you'll get flavorful hearty, authentic latin (more mexican) food. Its worth the trip and we always like the balwmer folks to come down.

Posted by tom on August 23, 2006 at 12:29 AM

Avoid La Fiesta at all costs. We paid $35 for four cheese quesadillas. Why? Nothing on the kid’s menu appealed to our kids so we asked the waiter if they could make some cheese quesadillas for the kids. He said nothing of the fact that they charge the full, regular price (nearly $9.00) no matter what toppings it has on it. The $9 quesadilla gets you beef or chicken. Ours had only cheese and nothing else—not even beans or rice on the side. One (1!) tortilla, some cheese folded over. That's it. For nearly $9 a piece. You would think the waiter would have the sense to mention that we were paying out the nose for these CHEESE quesadillas when we ordered two more for our hungry kids. We tried to reason with the manager who not only was not sympathetic to our situation, but actually smirked and laughed at us. We were as polite and diplomatic about it as possible but he would not consider how ridiculous it was to pay nearly $9 for a cheese quesadilla (again: ONE tortilla and some cheese). The manager finally took half off of one of the quesadillas. Hardly adequate. Consider a couple other Mexican restaurants: One charges $4.25 for a cheese quesadilla, rice and beans, dessert and drink. Another charges 95 cents (yes, CENTS) for a cheese quesadilla. And if it weren't for the ridiculously overpriced cheese quesadilla, I would still only give La Fiesta a moderate rating. The rest of the food was fair but not great. And it seems strange to pay $10.25 for a platter with two cheese enchiladas, a taco (with rice and beans) but only a dollar or so less than that for one CHEESE QUESADILLA. Even had the manager lowered the price to $5.00 each we would have been (relatively) happy but we still would have paid $20 for four (4!) tortillas with cheese on them. The bottom line: ¡Avoid La Fiesta!

Posted by Christian Anderson on August 26, 2006 at 8:42 PM

Venture down to Canton and try a couple places. Austin Grill is a DC chain, but their high test margaritas are awesome. Tart, potent, delicious! Their gaucamole is good too, but that's it. Their food is average.

Then head over to Canton Square and hit Nacho Mama's. Can be a bit of a wait at times, but food is great and reasonably priced.

Posted by Rob on August 29, 2006 at 9:51 AM

I live in France and have a horrible time finding Mexican food that is good. And, to add insult to injury, a margarita can cost about $10 and it's not even large.
My son, when a teen-ager, worked at Taco Bell (I have to admit I do like their enchiritos) and called it Taco Hell. I always smile when I see one back in the States.

Posted by Linda on August 30, 2006 at 2:44 AM

Go to ARCOS on Broadway in Upper Fells Points burgeoning latino neighborhood....I think you'll like it.

Posted by Steve on November 5, 2006 at 11:21 PM

Go to ARCOS on Broadway in Upper Fells Points burgeoning latino neighborhood....I think you'll like it.

Posted by Steve on November 5, 2006 at 11:22 PM

You may want to check out Taqueria Atotonilco on the western part of the 695 loop near Security Square Mall. They have really good mexican food and fun atmosphere. The details are here:

Taqueria Atotonilco - Authentic Mexican Food‎
1724 Woodlawn Dr
Baltimore, MD 21207
(410) 944-2494
http://www.taqueria-atotonilco.com

Posted by ta on April 8, 2008 at 12:48 PM


We've always like Pachanga Concina in Ellicott City on Rt. 40. La Palapa in Historic Ellicott City is not bad either. Tequila Mockingbird in Ocean City has the best Margaritas and good food.

Posted by Jim Jarrell on April 11, 2008 at 10:00 AM

I am pretty disappointed by the discussions on here. Everyone is entitled to their opinions, but let me make some points. First, many of you focus on the margaritas. In Mexico, margaritas are not even always served places and they certainly don't have the dozens of varieties posters here seem to seek. Second, fajitas and quesadillas are note even mexican food. Third, the initial post refers to Jaleo as latin food. It isn't. Spanish food is continental, as is Italian and French. The culinary heritage between Spain and Mexico is virtually nil due to the completely different agricultural products encountered 500 years ago! The American perception of burritos is not Mexican either. Burritos in Mexico are one of many foods they eat, not one of the mains like many people here have come to believe. I guess that is the influence of the 'mission-style burrito' and places like Chipotle. Lastly, i have lived in Chicago and places like Frontera are truly outstanding. However, the vast majority of the places there are no better than what we have in Fells Point here (the mix of Salvadoran/Mexican) or in other areas around the city. Blue Agave does have the potential to be that upper end upscale Mexican place for the city. Their Margaritas are not made from a mix or bottled lime juice. I know a bartender there. However, their food can be under salted at times. Loco Hombre used to have potential but that experiment seems to have blown up a couple of years ago. The best thing to do is walk along Broadway and pick a place in upper Fells Point. You will get real Mexican and/or Salvadoran. If authenticity is what you seek, you will be happy with a plate of rice, beans, and a pounded out steak. Just grab a hot tortilla in one hand, dig in, and wash it down with a Negra Modelo. That is good stuff.

Posted by Bill on June 15, 2008 at 10:24 AM

El Salto in Towson is pretty good. It's more americanized mexican but still tasty.

The meat dishes at Los Amigos are good. But, the last time I ate there I got a bit sick to my stomach. Probably a fluke, but it has left a bad taste in my mouth for them. Pun intended.

Posted by Kris on March 12, 2011 at 7:00 PM

Taqueria El Sabor Latino Del is worth checking out. I have my own standards for Mexican, and my preferences definitely lean in the direction of the taco cart. Taqueria El Sabor Latino Del has that no frills, good food appeal. I doubt you can get a margarita there, but you can definitely get authentic tacos filled with beef tongue, tripe, or grilled cactus. You won't find that at an upscale Tex-Mex joint. Address: 2901 Eastern Avenue. Price: $2/taco.

I rated them on Google Maps after we tried the place. The link to the reviews page is: http://maps.google.com/maps/place?cid=14215587352424391899&q=taqueria+baltimore&gl=us&hl=en&dtab=2&vps=2&jsv=321b&sll=39.288879,-76.597535&sspn=0.034973,0.053874&ie=UTF8.

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