Price is right, service is speedy

SUNDAY GOURMET

Restaurant: Chevys Fresh Mex offers fresh Mexican food that isn't bad but could be better.

February 13, 2000|By ELIZABETH LARGE | ELIZABETH LARGE,SUN RESTAURANT CRITIC

Few people can claim to have opened both an upscale seafood restaurant and a chain Mexican restaurant where the average check is probably $15 a person. In the same city, no less. But restaurateur Tom O'Leary has done just that.

He was one of the original owners of O'Learys in Eastport before he sold out 11 years ago and opened a catering company. Now he's back with a hip new venture, Annapolis' first Chevys Fresh Mex, part of a 150-restaurant chain.

The Mexican part isn't as odd as it sounds. O'Leary is from San Diego and knows his Mexican food. The chain part is odd, but the restaurateur explains that this is a superior chain: Everything is made fresh, from the guacamole to the tortillas. (Watching the tortilla machine at work in the front room is one of Chevys' attractions.) If it weren't for the ice cream, O'Leary adds, the restaurant wouldn't need a freezer.

Given all that, it's hard to understand why our meal wasn't better, although it wasn't bad. Or maybe it's not hard to understand. Chevys is feeding a ton of people quickly and efficiently at the remarkably low price of around $15 a person. For that you'll get more food than you can finish and a lively Southwestern setting. The bar and several dining rooms are cheerfully faux-rustic with a handsome fireplace, large terra-cotta tile floors and colored walls lined with art and ethnic artifacts.

As far as I can tell, Chevys is always hustling and bustling. It's the newest, hottest spot -- for families at least -- in the Annapolis area. (Be warned, parking is a problem.) No reservations are taken, and there's usually a wait; but the tables turn over quickly. This isn't a place people linger too long after they've eaten, and the staff is good at getting the food out quickly.

The food sounds mouthwatering, but there's a certain sameness to it. While good Mexican food can have bright and distinct flavors, at Chevys you find that true only in certain dishes, like the salsa vinaigrette for the house salad, which offers a fresh green note of coriander to contrast with the tomato-based heat. Freshly made tortilla chips and their smoky salsa dip are also full of lively flavor.

Knowing that the kitchen can produce such good things makes it all the more disappointing when something doesn't live up to its potential. Take the guacamole, which has wonderful chunks of fresh, ripe avocado but is filled with so much chopped raw onion you don't get much avocado flavor.

Portions are more than generous, and for the price you really can't complain. OK, I can complain that the sauce on the ribs tasted like marmalade. But nothing is terrible -- it's just that most of our food looked as if it had sat under the warming lights too long. (But that can't be true; we had very little wait for our meal.)

Sometimes it was hard to differentiate the ingredients. The shredded pork in one tamale on the Fresh Mex Sampler, for instance, wasn't markedly different from the overcooked chicken in another. Sauces on the grilled shrimp, the wings and the ribs had the same thing in common: They were too sweet for my taste.

So what was good? I enjoyed the carnitas, a great mound of roasted marinated pork, although the friend who ordered the dish thought the texture was mushy. Dinners come with excellent beans and rice. You could make a meal of them. The mesquite-grilled chicken and skirt steak on the plato gordo had lots of flavor -- too bad both were overcooked. And you simply can't beat Chevys' soft, warm, freshly made tortillas.

Desserts are spectacularly caloric. An oversized martini glass filled with ice cream, bits of crisp coconut, caramel sauce and whipped cream is enough for two. The sopaipilla with ice cream and honey would have been splendid, but the oil the pastry was fried in had been used once too often.

As busy as Chevys was that evening, the service was still well-orchestrated. The food came out quickly, although I had heard things were slow when the restaurant first opened; the staff is learning to handle the crowds. Our waiter was friendly without being annoying. I've had worse service where the check was three times as much.

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