Some of Baltimore's best ethnic restaurants are in the unlikeliest settings. Away from downtown, these restaurants operate where rents are lower and parking easier. But at the same time, there are fewer potential customers passing by -- especially tourists and suburbanites -- and it can take months, even years, for word of mouth to spread a restaurant's plaudits.
So, it seems, is Puerta del Sol, a Spanish and Peruvian restaurant on Harford Road in Hamilton, a working-class neighborhood in northeastern Baltimore with no particular ethnic base.
Almost as unlikely as this location is the spartan, barnlike interior of this fine ethnic restaurant. Had we not heard that this was a good, little-known restaurant, its ordinary appearance might have had my husband and I heading for the door.
Early on a Sunday evening, Puerta del Sol was nearly empty. By the time we left, however, most tables were taken. And by that time, we could see -- or, rather, taste -- why.
The menu offered so many intriguing dishes that we had difficulty deciding what to order.
As appetizers, I finally elected the Peruvian Shrimp Soup ($3.50); my husband, the Oysters Rockefeller ($6). Both succeed admirably.
The soup was similar to Shrimp in Garlic Sauce, with a lot more liquid, of course. The shrimp were tender and seemingly unseasoned but the broth was rich and savory. I found it a lovely combination.
My husband's five oysters were covered with sauteed fresh spinach and -- an unusual touch -- hollandaise sauce and had been run under the broiler just enough to give the sauce touches of brown. The oysters, he reported, were as tasty as they looked.
As a main course, I had the Beef Brochette, unusually large cubes of unusually tender, flavorful beef skewered with mushrooms, tomatoes and onions. The "special sauce," whose ingredients escaped me, was excellent and helped make this one of the best kebabs I can remember. At $14, the brochette was a value.
My husband had one of that night's two specials, Baby Salmon with a Mushroom and Red Pepper Sauce ($17). Neither of us had had baby salmon before; more's the pity.
Rather than being whacked from some trophy-sized specimen, the whole fish was less than a foot long, more resembling a flounder or catfish than what we are normally served as salmon. The taste was divinely mild, the light pink meat enhanced by the colorful, flavorful sauce.
With the brochette came rice -- plain, white, unadorned rice. With the salmon came green beans and peas, the freezer-burned taste of which was a detriment. Fortunately, we had also ordered a side dish of Sauteed Spinach ($3.25). The luscious green vegetable was flecked with green onion slices and almond slivers. It was every bit as good as our entrees.
As is true with most of Baltimore's Italian-Greek-Spanish restaurants, each table is served part of a loaf of Italian bread. We can understand that some restaurants serve a better bread than others. We could not understand why Puerto del Sol offered margarine instead of butter.
For dessert, we split a slice of Spanish-style chocolate cake roll. I think this must be one of those dishes that neither my husband nor I much cares for, probably because of the texture of the sponge cake. But our daughter, who had asked us to bring her a dessert, enjoyed hers immensely the next night.
Our check, with three drinks, including two terrific Manhattans, one glass of wine and two coffees, came to just less than $63.
A word about the service: slow. We wondered why a restaurant with a kitchen so consistently capable of superb, subtle tastes would have just two people taking care of the whole place. Wondered, that is, until we asked about the slowness and were told that two servers were sick.
By the time we finished, my husband and I both wished we had discovered Puerta del Sol earlier. It's been in business for two years and deserves to be considered among the city's best ethnic restaurants. But word, outside downtown, sometimes travels slowly.
*** Puerta del Sol
5506 Harford Road
Hours: Lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. weekdays; Dinner, 5 to 10 p.m., Tuesday through Thursday; 5 to 11 p.m. Friday; 4 to 11 p.m. Saturday; and 3 to 9 p.m. Sunday.
Reservations: Recommended on weekends.
Credit cards: Major credit cards accepted.
Handicapped access: Accessible.