Drawing A Crowd With Gourmet Tex-mex

DINING OUT

August 14, 1994|By ELIZABETH LARGE

Loco Hombre, 413 W. Cold Spring Lane, (410) 889-2233. Open every day for lunch and dinner. MC, V. No smoking. Prices: $4- $14. **1/2

There's nothing wrong with Loco Hombre, the new Tex-Mex restaurant on Cold Spring Lane, that having fewer customers wouldn't cure.

Who would have thought that Roland Park was so desperate for Mexican food? Even on weeknights, customers line up to get into the cheerful dining room with its desert mural, cactus wall decorations and tables set with bright Fiesta ware. (No reservations are taken.)

Even if Loco Hombre isn't crowded, the maitre d' won't seat you unless everyone arrives together. Which leads to exchanges like this:

Maitre d': Don't worry, we have five tables available and they won't be filled before the rest of your party arrives.

Customer: If you aren't going to fill them, why can't we sit down?

(Loco Hombre doesn't have a waiting area, so this is more serious than it sounds. You stand on the sidewalk in the 90-degree heat.)

Success means crowds, and crowds mean noise. Noise like you've never heard in a restaurant. Babies crying. People shouting to be heard over all the other people shouting to be heard over the babies crying.

Crowds mean a hassled waitress, a waitress who almost badgers us to order -- I suppose to free up the table for the next folks. (Admittedly, we are the slowest orderers in the world, as we carefully try to pick the most representative meal we possibly can. Also, we're enjoying our margaritas.)

A hassled waitress means a waitress who snarls at my daughterNo, you cannot have half your tacos with shredded chicken and half with ground beef.

A hassled waitress means one who almost bursts into tears when one of my guests stubbornly refuses to have raspberry vinaigrette on his Tex-Mex house salad and asks her to bring mayonnaise and ketchup to the table so he can mix his own dressing. (No, I don't deliberately pick the most difficult companions I can. It just seems that way.)

But there is a reason Loco Hombre is doing so well, and it has to do with the food. This is potentially as good as Tex-Mex gets. It's not going to satisfy those folks with a yen for authentic Mexican food, but it's not trying to. Gourmet Tex-Mex isn't a concept that ever occurred to me before, but I like it. And where the kitchen slips, my sense is that it's only because they are trying to feed too many people all at once.

What do I mean by gourmet Tex-Mex? Well, take the black bean soup. It's a classic and seductively good version, chock-full of flavor. And it's pretty as well, with a decorative pattern of sour cream on top, a bit of red salsa and a sprig of cilantro.

Loco Hombre's nachos aren't a gloppy mess of chips and melted Cheddar, but an artistic arrangement: white corn tortillas, a nice balance of melted Cheddar and pepper jack cheeses, chopped tomatoes, salsa, sliced black olives, guacamole and sour cream. Live a little, spend a little money, and they'll add some snowy lumps of crab meat to the mix.

Quesadillas can be either a shared first course or a cheap meal. The soft flour tortillas are folded around cheese, mushrooms, tomatoes, onions and peppers, then grilled so they have an edge of crispness. They're prettily presented with guacamole, sour cream and two different salsas.

Best of anything we tried was our waitress' recommendation: a huge, hot, soft cheese enchilada with all the fixin's. Junque food extraordinaire.

Loco Hombre -- which, by the way, means Crazy Man -- is brought to you by Classic Catering People, the savvy food group that runs the Pavilion at the Walters and Classic to Go Cafe near the Inner Harbor. Last week I wrote about the Pavilion, had almost nothing but praise for it, and thought it would be interesting to follow the old with the new venture.

At a Mexican-Southwestern restaurant run by almost anyone else, I might pick the tacos over the grilled salmon; but I thought that at a Pavilion sibling, even a funky one, seafood would be safe. Alas, the salmon wasn't as fresh as it should have been and the kitchen had overcooked it. Lovely presentation, though: The fish was on a bed of grilled vegetables, with salsa and a beautiful pale pink pepper cream.

Back to the Tex-Mex fare. Tacos are tacos, but Loco Hombre's tacos get the job done: They are huge, filling, satisfying and cheap. Chicken fajitas had all the requisite accompaniments without being in any way notable.

For dessert, I'd be happy with the sweet potato fries -- hot, crunchy-soft, sweet croquettes that are actually served as a side dish. But we tried a mile-high margarita parfait in a Pilsener glass, something like a Key lime pie without the crust; a hot pecan pie made even richer with chocolate sauce; and fried custard -- tasteless, but interesting textures. We also ordered a flan, but the waitress misunderstood (probably she couldn't hear over the crowd noise) and brought us two fried custards.

As for drinks, my guests voted the margaritas just OK, I enjoyed a glass of sangria, and the coffee was strong and hot. But if you order tea and don't want Earl Grey, you're out of luck.

Next: Schulz's

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