In the past five years or so, a variety of Latin American restaurants, from Tex-Mex to Salvadoran— to Ecuadorean and Peruvian— have appeared in the storefronts of Upper Fells Point. Style senior editors Joe Sugarman and Laura Wexler strolled Broadway and Eastern Avenue, tasting tamales and pursuing pupusas to create this handy users’ guide. Andalé!
El Trovador offers a “white tablecloth” experience in Latin Fells Point, but don’t expect formal dining—there’s still likely to be a telenovella or “Laura,” the Hispanic version of “Jerry Springer,” on the big screen TV behind the bar. Simply decorated with hardwood floors and potted plants, the décor relies on a minimum of cutouts of men in sombreros. Granted, there are two right at the front door, but they’re the trovadors (troubadours) for whom the restaurant is named.
The name of the game here is filling, tasty, reasonably priced food— and lots of it. So throw your diet to the wind and embrace the delights of Mexican and Salvadoran cuisine. Start with an order of tamal de elote, a sweet corn tamale served in its husk with sour cream, or platanos, plantains pan fried and also served with sour cream. On a chilly November night, try the pozole, a typical Mexican soup with bits of pork and hominy floating in a spicy tomato broth— the spice factor is geared down for gringos, so douse liberally with the bottle of El Tapatio on the table. If you want to tuck into something even heartier, try either of the platos tipicos salvadorenos, featuring steak, egg, cheese, rice and beans, pupusa and tamale all on a big platter, or any of the shrimp dishes. It’s peasant food— simple, pleasing and great for lunch the next day, too. 318 S. Broadway, 410-276-6200, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. —L.W.
Perhaps the prettiest restaurant in Latin Fells Point, Arcos features a brick-paved path leading from the bar, through the restaurant (which was painstakingly restored by owner Nicolas Ramos) and out back to a splendid plant-filled courtyard reminiscent of traditional Mexican restaurants. The complimentary homemade chips and salsa are a delicious accompaniment to a margarita or a shot of one of Arcos’ 30-odd specialty tequilas. To start, you can’t go wrong with the tortilla soup or the Arcos vegetable soup, whose cream, bacon and butter far outweigh its nutritional value. The entrees include a typical variety of chicken, pork and seafood dishes and offer a choice of sauces including the traditional Mexican specialty, mole. The gringo factor on the food here seems high—as do the prices, in comparison with the other neighborhood restaurants (beware that the prices on the actual menu are a few bucks higher than the prices on the Web site)—but then an appetizer of chiles toreados con cebolla comes out and is literally a plate of pan-fried jalapenos— with the seeds still in. Ay Chihuahua! 129 S. Broadway, 410-522-4777, restaurantearcos.com, 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily. —L.W.
We are all about Peruvian-style roasted chicken, which offers the wonderful charred-yet-moist duality and is amazingly flavorful, thanks to a marinade of cumin, garlic and who knows what else that’s injected before the bird spins on the rotisserie. At Pollo Latino, you order at the counter, choosing a quarter, half or whole chicken and two sides from the selection of rice, pinto beans, salad, fried yuca or french fries. The sides are incidental— it’s the chicken, stupid. Grab a horchata— a creamy, cinnamon cold drink— and you’re set. 401 S. Broadway, 410-276-3660, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily —L.W.
Tiny Michelle’s Café only has three small tables, but it serves eight kinds of tamales. “Tamales are usually considered breakfast food,” says Jesus Mendoza, who owns the restaurant with his wife, Iveth Gonzalez. (Michelle is their 8-year-old daughter.) We love to eat them anytime of day. The only problem: which kind to get? There’s the Oaxaquenos tamale— double-wrapped in both corn and banana leaves and stuffed with chicken and Guajillo chilies; the rajas tamales contain jalapenos, queso fresco and tomato sauce. And then there’s the torta de tamal, which comes served as a sandwich between slices of bread. All the tamales are made fresh on the premises, with the mole flown in from the couple’s native Puebla, Mexico. Recipes, too, come from home. “We’ve got our moms to thank for that,” says Mendoza.
Wash down breakfast or lunch (Michelle’s also offers American-style sandwiches and salads) with freshly squeezed tropical juices or one of three traditional warm Mexican drinks: champurrado, a chocolate-based elixir thickened with corn flour; arroz con leche, concocted with milk and rice; or atol de elote, which contains cornmeal, cinnamon, sugar and salt. All are a welcome change from Starbuck’s lattes and the perfect accompaniment to a couple of tamales eaten in this cheery little space. 1832 Eastern Ave., 410-522-0554, Monday to Saturday, 6:30 a.m. to 7 p.m., Sunday, 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. —J.S.
La Guadalupana Tienda y Restaurante
The best way to experience this place is to spend some time browsing the aisles and picking up all the Goya products, Mexican cheeses and spices, prickly pear leaves, dried beans coated with chili and lemon and corn husks you can’t get at your regular grocery store. After that, step next door, grab a Jarritos, canned papaya or guanabana juice— or a cerveza— from the cold case and settle in for some serious comfort food. A plate of fried plantains, refried beans and eggs will set you back $5. Three enchiladas smothered in mole sauce, rice, beans and salad are $8. As the neon Miller Lite sign hanging in the café says: “Cae Bien.” It goes down good. Hint: There’s not much English spoken here, so come ready to practice your Spanish. 500 S. Wolfe St., 410-276-2700, 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily. —L.W.
El Taquito Mexicano
This place is frequently empty— and is illuminated with not-so-atmospheric fluorescent lighting— but don’t be shy. Go on in and order up some authentic working-class Mexican food and chances are some locals from the neighborhood will stop in for lunch or dinner while you’re there. The pollo con mole poblano is delicious and comes with tortillas for sopping up all that chocolate-y sauce. The menu also features roast beef with avocado sauce— think guacamole but with a thinner consistency— a variety of pork chops, tamales, tacos, fajitas and meatball stew. Don’t expect many vegetables— this is hearty, filling food at rock-bottom prices. It would be a good place to visit before making the rounds of Fells Point’s watering holes. 1744 Eastern Ave., 410-563-7840, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily. —L.W.
For Ecuadorean food, there’s only one option in town: La Cazuela. The bright, sunny space with yellow walls and linen tablecloths is a touch upscale, with a hearty dose of family friendliness, courtesy of owners Marina and Enrique Tapia.
So what is Ecuadorean food? Think slabs of marinated skirt steak, fresh fish, plantains and regular doses of hominy in many dishes. You won’t find any tortillas or tacos here. And nothing is too spicy, just tangy.
The complimentary green plantains cut and fried like french fries and served with a red pepper-tinged mayonnaise dipping sauce are a welcome start to your meal. But don’t overlook the maduro con queso, a yellow plantain stuffed with queso fresco and deep fried.
The massive portions of meat should be enough to satisfy any carnivore, but we often prefer the fish: encocado de pescado is tilapia served in a flavorful coconut sauce over rice. We also fish for the encebollado de pescado— a thick stew of tuna, yuca and onions, served with a bowl of dried hominy. For the adventurous palate, there’s more traditional Ecuadorean fare, such as beef tripe, nanny goat stew or the national dish, cuy (guinea pig) served with potatoes. At $39.98, it’s by far the most expensive dish on the menu, but for an authentic taste of Ecuador, it’s certainly cheaper than a flight to Quito. 1718 Eastern Ave., 410-522-9485. 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Daily. —J.S.
Face it: You really haven’t eaten a tortilla until you’ve had one freshly baked and served soft and warm. The ones found wrapped in plastic at the local Giant supermarket? Mierda.
A good taco starts with a good tortilla, after all, and the only place we know where you can find them is at Tortilleria Sinaloa. Every morning the little eatery’s tortilla machine whirs into action and pumps out fresh-baked beauties (up to 700 on weekends), which are kept hot in a metal steamer throughout the day. The restaurant only has 10 stools, but Latinos and gringos alike belly up to the L-shaped counter to chow down on tacos filled with beef, chicken, chorizo, pulled pork or beef tongue, for just $2.45 to $2.95. We like ours with onions and fresh guacamole, maybe a spritz of fresh lime and some fiery red or green salsa.
Luckily, at Tortilleria Sinaloa, you can get a kilo of tortillas to go for $1.70 so you’ll never have to buy tortillas wrapped in plastic again. 1716 Eastern Ave., 410-276-3741 —J.S.
Restaurante Santa Ana
In El Salvador the pupusa is such a staple that citizens celebrate it with an official holiday, Día Nacional de la Pupusa, “National Pupusa Day,” every Nov. 13. At Restaurante Santa Ana, it seems as if it’s National Pupusa Day every day. The Salvadoran eatery, with its coral pink walls and often overpoweringly loud jukebox, offers pupusas stuffed with cheese, pork, chicken, beans or beef and topped with curtido, a spicy coleslaw. (In case you don’t know pupusas from samosas, the Salvadoran delicacy is somewhat like a thick corn flour quesadilla, except the filling is baked into the wrapper, instead of simply sandwiched between two layers.)
The restaurant offers other Salvadoran and Mexican fare, too: tripe soup, steaks, refried beans and yummy plantains. Wash it all down with a horchata or a Corona, and on Nov. 13, don’t forget to wish your waitress a happy holiday. 246 S. broadway, 410-327-0266, Open 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. —J.S.
Latin Palace isn’t just a great place to try out those new salsa steps. Its upper-level restaurant, Las Palmas, is also a classy place for a tasty late-night comida. Owner Enrique Ribadeneira makes sure both gringos and folks from all 22 Latin American countries feel at home. The restaurant’s dinner menu wanders from Mexican fajitas to Cuban-style roast pork to a tasty steak “a la Argentina” (a New York strip with Spanish sausage, peppers and onions). If you don’t want a heavy meal to weigh down your shaking hips, opt for the tapas bocadillos, small plates of fried plantains, steamed clams in garlic sauce or shrimp quesadillas.
The fish tank, tropical trees and murals painted by local artists give dancers and diners a taste of the tropics, while the dance music (provided by a mix of live acts or a DJ) is bumping every night of the week but Mondays. Instructors give salsa lessons Wednesdays through Saturdays and diners receive 50 percent off their lesson. 509 S. Broadway, 410-522-6700, latinpalace.com. Tuesday to Sunday at 4:30 p.m. —J.S.