The last time I ate in the space where the No Way Jose Cafe recently opened it was Stall 1043. Nouvelle cuisine had just arrived in Baltimore, and dinner was three rare scallops in raspberry sauce with nasturtium blossoms on the side.
OK, I don't really remember what dinner was -- it must have been a dozen years ago -- but one thing I'm sure of, it wasn't quesadillas or mesquite-smoked ribs with ranchero fries.
I have a feeling that the No Way Jose Cafe is going to succeed in a spot where other businesses have failed because Baltimore needs all the good Mexican restaurants it can get. While our lTC meal there had its ups and downs, I like the kitchen's daring -- its willingness to offer customers Mexican food beyond tacos and fajitas. Even something like the brisket sandwich sounded special: it's served on jalapeno-Cheddar corn bread.
Those who are used to American-style Mexican food may not be happy with, say, a traditional taco made with minced rather than ground meat and soft whole wheat tortillas. They may be put off by the blue corn tortilla chips served with drinks. And what Mexican restaurant do you know of that serves Caesar salad and vichyssoise as the soup of the day?
Start with a guacamole salad ($3.95), the smooth and perfectly seasoned avocado puree nestled in radicchio leaves, prettily garnished with peppers and lettuce. Or the ceviche of the day ($5.95) -- whatever freshest fish or scallops are in the market (that evening it was orange roughy), marinated in lime juice and decorated with coriander, peppers and tomatoes.
A special of the day ($11.95) featured half a pound of fresh tuna mesquite grilled to perfect doneness. But be warned: It was on a tomato-and-leek concasse so incendiary I couldn't eat it, and topped with smoked mussels in homemade mayonnaise, which were good but seemed unconnected to the rest of the dish.
Grilled marinated shrimp ($10.95) may have once had a wonderful flavor, but were cooked to dryness. Try instead Pico chicken ($7.95), the boneless breast meat tender and juicy, topped with a thin coating of melted cheese and a little salsa. It came on a bed of excellent Caesar salad. Dessert might be strawberries in sour cream ($3.25) or double chocolate silk pie, which "hadn't set" the night we were there, according to our waitress, and had to be sent back to the woman who bakes them.
Whatever you think about the food, you have to admit the interior of the cafe-restaurant looks great. The postage-stamp dining room in back of the bar has a mezzanine and a large skylight, and a wild and wonderful mural of the Southwest desert has been painted over the walls and ceiling. The mismatched tables and chairs strike just the right note.
No reservations are accepted, and the No Way Jose Cafe is already the hot spot to be, so be prepared to wait to get seated and to have another margarita and wait some more once you are.
No Way Jose Cafe
Where: 1041-43 Marshall St.
Hours: Tuesdays through Sundays, noon
to 4 p.m., Mondays through Thursdays,
5 p.m. to 10 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays,
5 p.m. to midnight.
Credit cards accepted: D, MC, V.
Features: Mexican food.
Non-smoking section? No.
Call: (410) 752-2837..