Tex-Mex menu moves in healthful direction Restaurant: Diners should find little reason to beef at Sin Carne, which has stylishly transformed the usually fat-laden food.

March 22, 1998|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,SUN RESTAURANT CRITIC

If you had to pick a healthful cuisine, I'm not sure Tex-Mex would come to mind first. Short on fresh vegetables and long on fried chips, ground beef, sour cream, cheese and other fatty calories, it also doesn't have much of a gourmet reputation. So you have to give the owners of Puffins credit for breaking new ground when they recently opened Sin Carne, a "meatless Mexican cantina," next door to their natural-foods restaurant.

One thing I've always liked about Puffins is that no one involved is a fanatic. You may not be able to get a New York strip there, but you can have a glass of wine with your grilled fish. And, yes, you can get a margarita with your quesadillas at Sin Carne. (A very good margarita, what's more, because it's made with fresh lime juice or fresh strawberries.)

As for Sin Carne's food, you could substitute tofu for chicken or fish, soy cheese for "our own gourmet Tex-Mex cheese blend" or nonfat yogurt for the sour cream. But if you don't elect any of those substitutions, you'll end up with traditional Tex-Mex food produced with quite a bit of style.

Style, in fact, is one of Sin Carne's selling points. Like any cantina worth its salt, the focus of the dining room is the bar. (And like Puffins' dining room, it's nonsmoking.) The walls, hung with Ansel Adams photographs of Western landscapes, are painted a fine strawberry-margarita red. It works with the chic slate-gray, black and white of the rest of the room. The tables and chairs are casual contemporary -- and is that cowhide on the bar stools?

The kitchen is attempting gourmet Mexican here, and it often succeeds. Salsas are homemade. Even side dishes like rice and refried beans are seasoned so they don't have that monotonous sameness you sometimes get with Tex-Mex. The lettuce that comes with the fajitas and such is baby greens, not shredded iceberg.

If you crave beef with your Mexican food, you're out of luck. But otherwise you won't even notice, except in a positive way, that this food is more healthful than the usual Tex-Mex.

Which doesn't mean that everything works. A special of the day, an appetizer, paired too-small grilled shrimp (four of them) in four greasy, fried mini-tacos. Grilled salmon nestled in two white corn tortillas had been overcooked, and the mole verde sauce was so sour it overwhelmed the flavor of the fish. A side order of freshly made guacamole sported so much onion you couldn't taste the avocado.

But no one could complain about the crab quesadillas, the flour tortillas filled with impressively big lumps of crab meat, roasted red peppers, caramelized onions and melted cheese. Fajitas came with all the trimmings and strips of grilled chicken that had been marinated so they had lots of flavor.

Pieces of grilled rockfish fillet, perfectly fresh and moist, were rolled in soft tortillas with just the right amount of cheese, lettuce and tomatoes. Salsa verde added zing.

For greenery, three of us split a Southwestern Cobb salad -- mesclun with avocado, tomato, onion, cheese and a spicy-sweet (too sweet for my taste) citrus vinaigrette.

Desserts, for the moment at least, come from Puffins next door, so you can have -- say -- apple pie made without sugar and with a whole-wheat crust, or baked pears under a topping of granola. That's if you're feeling virtuous. But my advice is to get the chocolate-chip coffee cake, light as a feather and served warm with frozen yogurt and, yes, hot fudge sauce. But how bad can it be for you if it comes from Puffins?

Sin Carne

Where: 1000 Reisterstown Road, Pikesville

Hours: Open Tuesday through Sunday for dinner (hours will change in April)

Prices: Appetizers, $6-$12; entrees, $9-$13; major credit cards

Call: 410-466-6400

Pub Date: 3/22/98

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