Mexican fare, nice and spicy

August 08, 1996|By Laura Rottenberg | Laura Rottenberg,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Americans now eat more salsa than ketchup, and the margarita was recently deemed the nation's most popular mixed drink. This shouldn't surprise Jeff Lipkin, who owns Hacienda Restaurant, a bustling eatery out on Belair Road. Open for nearly 15 years, it changed hands two years ago, closed because of a kitchen fire and reopened this past January.

The restaurant, equipped with sombreros, chili-pepper lights and other festive decorations, turns out some of the area's best Mexican food. As is customary, chips and salsa are gratis, featuring lightly salted and fresh-tasting tortilla chips and a small ramekin of smooth, pureed salsa. The latter is not real fiery or garlicky, but the vibrant taste of tomato makes it appealing. Glossy, green guacamole (which could use a little garlic and a squeeze of lime), rounds out the Mexican snack-food trinity.

Mild cheese-stuffed breaded jalapenos are a pleasant opener, and while the ranch dressing is strictly north-of-the-border, it works as a dipping sauce for these "Mexican Firecrackers." Another appetizer, queso fundido, tops carnitas (shredded and browned pork) with Monterey jack and diced tomatoes. Served with warm flour tortillas, this dish would really swing with a pinch of ground ancho or pasilla chilies.

Entrees are corralled under several headings: Mexican favorites, gringo corner, Hacienda combinations, Hacienda specialties and chef's recommendations. Weighing in for that last category, "Jose's Stack" was our table's unanimous favorite. Like a Mexican version of a napoleon, three thick, flavorful corn tortillas sandwich savory black beans, shreds of smoldering chicken, dribbles of ranchero sauce (a tomato-based sauce enlivened by serrano or jalapeno chilies) and a sprinkling of cheese.

It may seem overkill to serve Jose's Stack with refried beans, but the legumes provide a nice contrast to the dish. This amalgam of whole and mashed pinto beans is a far cry from the lard-spiked mound of library paste you find at many bogus Mexican restaurants.

Our pick from the Hacienda specialties, the barbecued baby back ribs, proves nearly as stellar as Jose's Stack. Meltingly tender pork ribs are slathered with a chunky, vinegary barbecue sauce that resembles a tomato relish. They are served with soupy black beans and a mound of seasoned fries. Our only disappointment: The entree's promised corn bread fails to arrive.

The Mexican favorites heading is crowded with nicely executed standbys. Quesadillas are textbook. Big flour tortillas enfold peppers, onions, cheese and your choice of shredded chicken, beef, pork or black beans. A chicken fajita burrito is not the hold-it-in-your-hand style of burrito: Grilled, sliced chicken breast, sauteed onions and peppers, tomatoes and cheese are wedged into a flour tortilla, which is then topped with poblano chili sauce and more cheese, then baked. Both dishes are served with lackluster Spanish rice and either the tasty black or refried beans.

Traditional Mexican desserts are often ultra-sweet, eggy dishes featuring pine nuts, almonds and fruit pastes. For this reason, we wonder how "old-fashioned" Hacienda's "old-fashioned Mexican mud pie" really is. Coffee ice cream sits on an Oreo crust, which is surrounded by decorative blobs of chocolate whipped cream. It's a traditional mud pie, all right, but hardly an old-fashioned Mexican dessert. Also loopy is Hacienda's Grand Marnier and white chocolate spin on classical Mexican flan (egg custard).

The festive atmosphere at Hacienda makes a pitcher of margaritas seem de rigueur. The golden margarita is the priciest, but the Cuervo Gold, Cointreau and lime juice make for fine bedfellows, all the better to toast our country's adoption of Mexican cuisine.

Hacienda Restaurant

4840 Belair Road

(410) 488-9447

Hours: Monday through Thursday, 4 p.m.-10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 4 p.m.-midnight; Sunday noon-10 p.m.

Credit cards: Major credit cards

Prices: appetizers, $3.95-$5.95; entrees, $5.95-$12.95

Pub Date: 8/08/96

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