It's cool to be Cultured

March 06, 1997|By Laura Rottenberg | Laura Rottenberg,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Across the top of the menu at Mencken's Cultured Pearl is a single, cryptic line called Mencken's Law. It reads, "If A injures B under the pretext of saving or informing X, A is a scoundrel." Let's try to figure this out by using this review as an example: If I (let's call me "A") harm Mencken's Cultured Pearl (we'll call the restaurant "B") under the pretext of informing readers ("X") that the food is not very good, then I am a scoundrel. Hmm, I don't like the sound of that.

But, it would be very difficult to hurt Mencken's booming business by informing the world that I've eaten a few less-than-stellar dishes there because, frankly, a lot of folks don't go there strictly for the food.

Baltimore has a handful of eateries where the food is subordinate to accessory pleasures. For some, there are the postprandial cigars at Ruth's Chris Steak House; others enjoy campy tarot card readings at the Palmer House; and kids may favor the room of balls at Chuck E. Cheese.

At Mencken's, the draw is that, ensconced at a table in this funky Sowebo hangout, everyone can feel cool. And believe me, for some of us that's no mean feat.

There's often a wait for a table, especially on weekends, so you'll have plenty of time to eavesdrop on the hipsters crowding the bar. Hostesses, often with piercings in novel locales, will yell into the din when your table is ready. Around the corner from the bar, the dining room is festooned with some real art, and with some crayon renderings contributed by patrons. (Even the artistically challenged can't refrain from doodling on the paper tablecloth with the crayons provided.)

Often at Mencken's there's a little bit of lag time between ordering and eating, so you might work your way through several baskets of chips and salsa (not free; the first round is $2.50, refills are $1). The chips are crisp and nicely tinged with a sprinkling of what tastes like chili powder and cayenne. The salsa is a chunky-style, benign amalgam of mild chilies, onion and tomato. The house guacamole is simple yet decadent, sparked with a squeeze of lime.

As at many places frequented by Generation Xers, pains are taken here to offer numerous vegetarian options. At our meal, we found these to be among the best dishes. A quesadilla (mild though we had ordered the hottest level) was stuffed with crisp onion and green pepper, sauteed mushrooms, diced tomato and gooey cheese. Vegetable enchiladas packed the same vegetables and nicely showcased the earthy taste of baked corn tortillas.

Our meat entrees were disappointing. A chorizo and bean tostada was entirely free of chorizo, the highly seasoned Mexican pork sausage. Unannounced, ground beef was substituted (as it was on a chorizo taco). The mound of underseasoned beans and ground beef on the tostada hid a limp and saturated corn tortilla. A Sowebo burrito was not much better -- bland chicken chunks, rice, onion, lettuce and mild chilies were folded into a huge flour tortilla moistened with a salty orange sauce.

Margaritas at Mencken's are perfectly respectable; the boutique beer list is extensive; and desserts include a very pretty cinnamon sopaipilla (deep-fried pastry) served with honey. And now this scoundrel is done.

Mencken's Cultured Pearl

1114 Hollins St.

(410) 837-1947

Hours: Dinner daily, lunch Tuesdays through Sundays, brunch Sundays

Credit cards: All major cards

Prices: appetizers, $2.25-$7.25; entrees, $3.50-$13

Pub Date: 3/06/97

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