Upscaling the downscale

Restaurant: The Austin Grill in Canton's Can Company takes Tex-Mex uptown, and makes it work.

January 17, 1999|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

Remember when Tex-Mex food was about as cheap, down and dirty a meal as you could get? Then came the Tex-Mex restaurant of the '90s, where the signature dish is a portobello fajita. Prime example: the new Austin Grill in the Can Company in Canton.

As much as you can upscale downscale food, the Austin Grill has done it. This is the sixth member of a Washington-based chain, but its food doesn't taste like chain food. Everything is made from scratch, so they say, including 20 different sauces and salsas whipped up daily.

If you think "upscale" is a bit of an exaggeration, given that fajitas, tacos and combo plates have pride of place on the menu, consider this: The mesquite-grilled fish of the day, halibut the night I was there, was sauced with a beurre blanc -- the equal of any I've had at a fine French restaurant -- flavored with minced tomatillos.

And then there's the decor. Sure, the dining rooms are funky, with exposed pipes and what looks like the original brick. But note the elegant little details: lights in the shape of stars, pressed tin walls, the cacti sculpture, clever finials in fantastical shapes on the decorative wrought-iron fencing. It's the restaurant equivalent of designer jeans.

The good news is that the Austin Grill hasn't jacked up the prices to go with the fancy touches. You can get beef fajitas for $12.95, which is the going rate at plenty of places that don't have as much style as this.

The fajitas' skirt steak is marinated in fresh lime juice and mesquite-grilled. It comes with all the bells and whistles -- sauteed onions, sour cream, lettuce, two kinds of grated cheese, lettuce, pico de gallo and guacamole -- plus refried beans and rice. It tasted good to me, as fajitas usually do, but I wouldn't necessarily pick these fajitas over any others. That wasn't true of the refried beans, which were fabulous. (And how often do you get to wax rhapsodic over refried beans?)

As for our other dinners, tender slices of pork loin had a gutsy mole sauce, as dark as chocolate with a spicy, nutty kick. On the side was rice so highly seasoned it would make your hair stand on end, and mixed squash that was too undercooked for me -- and I don't like overcooked vegetables.

Well, you don't come here for health food, so don't worry about the squash. Or the tossed green salad, for that matter. The lettuce was a bit tired and the lime cilantro dressing was pretty fiery for a green salad (loved those toasted pumpkin seeds, though).

Anything else we didn't love? The guacamole had a smooth, almost liquid texture that took some getting used to, but everything else made us happy. Mexican corn soup was hot and creamy, with little bursts of sweet flavor from fresh corn kernels. But the hit of the evening, as far as I was concerned, was the Austin Special, an unassuming enchilada plate. Not the usual gloppy mess, this balanced the rich corn flavor and soft texture of the tortillas with two fine fillings, one chicken and one cheese, plus three different sauces of varying color and heat striped on top.

If you like sweets, you'll be happy with the Austin Grill's desserts. The specialty of the house is a warm brownie with homemade vanilla ice cream and hot chocolate sauce, and I can't deny that it's good. But I liked the cool flavor of an authentic Key lime pie and the pizazz of creamy flan made from sweet potatoes.

You could skip dessert and have another margarita. The Austin Grill version features fresh lime juice and fish-shaped swizzle sticks that are worth the price of admission.

AUSTIN GRILL

Food: ***

Service: ***

Atmosphere: ***

Where: The Can Company, 2400 Boston St.

Hours: Open every day for lunch and dinner, brunch on Saturday and Sunday

Prices: Appetizers: $4.95-$8.95, main courses: $6.95-$14.95

Call: 410-534-0606

Rating system: Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *

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