The Cuisine Of New Mexico? A Lot Like Tex-mex

DINING OUT

December 05, 1993|By ELIZABETH LARGE

Lista's, 1637 Thames St., (410) 327-0040. Open every day for lunch and dinner Tuesdays to Sundays. Major credit cards. No-smoking area: yes. Wheelchair accessible: yes. Prices: appetizers, $3.95-$9.95; entrees, $8.95-$19.95.

To this day I remember a letter I got from a reader some 15 years ago, after I had reviewed a local Mexican restaurant. She was incensed that I thought its burritos and enchiladas were in any way representative of real Mexican cooking, which she proceeded to describe in detail. It was the most poetic description of food -- of Mexican food, anyway -- I've ever read.

I suppose some part of me is still looking for that kind of cooking in every Mexican and Southwestern restaurant that opens up around here. But as long as places do well serving the standard dishes Americans know and love, I'm probably not going to find it.

Lista's, which opened a couple of months ago on Brown's Wharf in Fells Point, is the latest of the American-Mexican entries; it even calls itself a New Mexican rather than Mexican restaurant. (Not that I can tell much difference between this food and Tex-Mex, except that there's not so much Howdy Pardner atmosphere as there is, say, at the Lone Star Grill.)

The first Lista's opened in Colorado in the '70s and did so well it expanded to Virginia Beach. Now the Evangelista family has brought Lista's to Baltimore, in the spot where Surfside Sally's used to be.

From the outside, Lista's jazzy neon will draw you in: a cactus, a large chili pepper and an "open" sign for the cantina look. The setting is at its best in the warm weather, when you have your choice of inside seating overlooking the water or a table on the patio. When it's cold, neither the bar with its high ceiling and mezzanine nor the non-smoking room with its large windows and exit onto the wharf is exactly cozy.

On the chilly night we were there, the staff went in and out of the exit to move the patio furniture, blasting us with cold air every time. Yes, we finally complained, but use your heads, guys. And this is not a winter restaurant in one other way. There's no coat room and no hooks. You'll have to find room for your wraps at your table.

The dining rooms are gaily decorated with furniture in the pastel shades of a Southwestern desert. Pinatas, cheerful paper cutouts and strings of Christmas tree lights in the shape of chili peppers brighten the rooms even more. There's plenty of atmosphere, in other words, including live music (guitar, flute and harp). I loved it, but I might not have been quite so enthusiastic if we had been seated right beside the musicians.

We started our meal with Lista's plata favorita, not something that's going to blaze any culinary trails, but the kind of food you enjoy with a margarita or a Mexican beer. Give Lista's credit for making its own chunky guacamole from good, ripe avocados, chopped tomatoes, onions and spices. And I'd order the taquitos again in a second. They were probably what I liked best of our meal: crisp little rolls of corn tortilla, deep-fried and stuffed with shredded beef. You eat these crunchy little morsels with sour cream and guacamole.

The rest of the plate -- quesadillas and nachos -- was pretty standard stuff. It's hard to ruin junk food extraordinaire like chips piled with refried beans and melting Cheddar and Monterey Jack, but it's hard to make it soar either. The same melted cheeses turn up in the quesadillas, soft flour tortilla triangles perked up with slices of jalapeno pepper, onions and tomatoes.

Two of us had a soup course. The menudo was excellent: a thin, intense broth filled with bits of chewy tripe and nuggets of white hominy. Lista's chile verde is too intensely spiced for my cowardly taste buds, but fire-eaters will find this version of the pork-based classic flavorful if thicker than usual. Both came with warm flour tortillas.

I can recommend two of the three main courses we had. Margarita shrimp, so called because the sauce is pale green and flavored with tequila, were plump and well cooked, the salsa verde's mild spiciness set off by slices of cucumber. Pollo en mole poblano involved generous chunks of boneless chicken in a dark, rich sauce, the flavors a tempting balance of chilies and other spices, bitter chocolate and peanuts. Both dishes come with Spanish rice and black beans.

So far, so good -- until we got to the special of the day, an expensive ($20) surf and turf served fajita style. On almost every level it didn't work. First of all, it was do-it-yourself. If you wanted to roll the lobster tail or steak in the soft flour tortillas, you'd have to slice them first. The steak was supposedly a filet mignon, but it didn't resemble any filet I've ever had, and it was tough and overcooked. The lobster was overcooked as well -- I suppose that can be a problem with serving food on a sizzling platter if it has to sit at all. One thing I wouldn't do is put cooked broccoli directly on a sizzling platter. It turns black.

The waitress told us we were the first customers she'd ever had who'd ordered three courses. You mean four, we told her as we asked for fried ice cream, sopaipillas (fried pastries) and a Mad Mexican sundae, all in the line of duty. Lista's must know that once people slip from their diets they go whole hog; otherwise it wouldn't expect people to eat these incredibly rich combinations of ice cream, fried dough, honey and chocolate after what's

come before.

Next: Mo's Crab and Pasta Factory

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