Cooking up divine beans in Hampden

September 05, 1996|By Laura Rottenberg | Laura Rottenberg,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Diana Kennedy would salute Holy Frijoles. Though an American, she is the reigning queen of Mexican cookbooks. For 30 years, she has celebrated the clean, simple, vibrant flavors of regional Mexican foods. And she has waged a quiet campaign to stamp out the ubiquitous Velveeta-inspired nacho sauce in this country's Mexican restaurants in favor of more authentic sauces (Hot as a Dog's Nose Sauce, anyone?)

Well, her crusade must be working. Since opening nearly two months ago in Hampden, Holy Frijoles has been serving fresh and spirited Mexican food to the eager throngs. With its sign, which is a cute, wiggling, haloed pinto bean, the restaurant is a charming and irreverent little spot on what's known in Hampden as "the Avenue."

Like so many of the neighborhood's rowhouses, Holy Frijoles is long, narrow and cozy. It's kind of like a restaurant crammed into the body of a glider plane. About a dozen funky tables are shoehorned in with whimsical Mexican folk art and decorative touches that show an enormous sense of style if not an enormous budget.

A meal at Holy Frijoles is best begun at the beginning of the menu. A basic quesadilla enfolds mild poblano chilies, onion, Monterey jack and fresh tomatoes between two hot flour tortillas. Cut into wedges and dunked in the spectacular house salsa fresca, it's a good shared appetizer, especially with added fillings of hearty refried beans (frijoles), grilled chicken, flank steak or smoldering chorizo sausage.

Another starter, the chile rellenos -- big Anaheim peppers stuffed with smooth Cheddar and jack cheeses and then battered and deep-fried -- are, as the French say, a mouth amusement, a lovely contrast of textures and flavors. Nachos are unlike the sodden mess we see elsewhere. Freshly fried chips are topped with all the usual suspects and whisked out to your table before the first chip has drooped.

The bulk of the menu is a build-your-own guide to perfect tacos, burritos, chimichangas (rolled and fried flour tortillas), enchiladas and fajitas. Each textbook article is offered with a number of fillings: flavorful black beans dotted with corn, marinated chicken, sliced flank steak, bits of chorizo sausage, grilled peppers and zucchini, and rich refried beans. You can choose your entree solo or get it accompanied by a side of Spanish rice and soupy, slow-cooked pinto beans.

Holy Frijoles has no liquor license, but its staff will gladly chill your store-bought beer or wine and even provide margarita setups for your own tequila. But it's a shame to pass up the restaurant's lemon-limeade.

The efficient, hip young waitresses will try to talk you into dessert. By all means, let them. The flan is velvety, and the lime bar is like a lemon square with attitude.

One note to Diana Kennedy: If after reading this, you rush over to Hampden and the line at Holy Frijoles is endless, take heart. They deliver, too.

Holy Frijoles Mexican Eatery

908 W. 36th St.

(410) 235-2326

Open daily for lunch and dinner

Credit cards: Major credit cards

Prices: appetizers, $3.75-$6.75; entrees $1.75-$9.95

Pub Date: 9/05/96

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