One of the joys of living in a city is the abundance of restaurants that offer authentically prepared ethnic food at bargain prices. Baltimore's growing Salvadoran population has recently added to this wealth of urban epicurean diversity. It's helped Charm City achieve a milestone: When it comes to Latin cooking, we are now a community with more than just Tex-Mex.
Open up the menu at Restaurante San Luis in Fells Point and you will see this is not your parents' Chi-Chi's. Expect to find fried plantains, marinated cabbage and pupusas. Not a single chimichanga in sight.
For the inexperienced, such a place must be approached in a spirit of adventure. San Luis' dining room is unpretentious. Its core clientele does not involve the tourist trade. So you can expect to find a corner TV turned to a Spanish-language channel with the volume up and a menu that is not all that descriptive.
Decor is an eye-popping red and pink. There are painted tin ceiling tiles lining the walls, a few velvet paintings, some photos and assorted bric-a-brac. The waitresses are friendly -- and will speak English if necessary. The menu incorporates some Mexican and Latin fare along with Salvadoran.
But here's a tip: Stick with the Salvadoran, especially the appetizers. They are the most interesting and well-prepared food San Luis offers.
A good place to start is with the pupusas and tamals. Both are found only as appetizers. Pupusas are stuffed corn tortillas. The best is the pupusa stuffed with cheese and pork and covered in pickled cabbage. It is a marvel, hot and gooey with that mild vinegary slaw -- think of it as a Salvadoran Reuben.
The tamals are the Salvadoran version of tamales except softer, almost puddinglike, and more delicately flavored than the Mexican variety. The chicken tamal is excellent -- stuffed with chickpeas along with bits of chicken. But even more interesting is the tamal de elote: a baby corn tamal that is nearly sweet enough to serve as a dessert.
The entrees offered mixed returns. One problem showed up so consistently it suggested a cultural preference: Meats were always too salty. This proved true on two different visits to the restaurant. Clearly, this is not a place for the hypertensive.
Plato tipico, a combination platter of grilled steak, fried plantain, avocado, refried beans, rice and scrambled eggs served with thick corn tortillas was marred by the beef's saltiness. Same with the yuca con chicharron, with chunks of cassava root prepared like oversized french fries and served with grilled pork and cabbage. Once again, the meat sent us running to our water glasses.
This was also true of the tacos de puerco. The saltiness of the pork tacos nearly masked the food's pleasant flavor. Only in the Santa Fe burrito -- a beef burrito with enough tomato sauce, lettuce, sour cream and onion to dilute the salt's effect -- was this not an issue.
Desserts were the modest afterthought one expects to find in Latin restaurants. Only two were offered on the most recent visit -- orange gelatin and cheesecake. Neither embarrassed the management -- or did it proud.
Actually, the most impressive element to the meal's ending was the check. It was tiny. You can eat a multicourse dinner at San Luis for little more than $10 per person, not counting alcohol. This alone should justify a visit from the intrepid diner who wants to broaden his palate -- and appreciate the diversity that makes a city special.
Restaurante San Luis
246 S. Broadway
Hours: Open daily for lunch and dinner
Credit cards: MasterCard, Visa
Prices: Appetizers $1-$3.95; entrees $5.95-$16.95
Atmosphere: **, Ratings system: Outstanding: ****; Good ***; Fair or uneven **, Poor *