Modest looks, great taste

May 11, 2000|By David Richardson, and Cameron Barry | David Richardson, and Cameron Barry,Special to the Sun

Another assignment, another strip shopping center. This one, with a bankrupt chain store as its centerpiece, is especially uninspiring. Our destination, Fiesta Grill, has a sign with cartoonish Toys R Us-type lettering that makes us wince.

Inside, the place is modest (clearly a former pizza parlor) but spotless. However, it isn't until we spy what the only other diners in the place are eating -- a rich-looking soup chock-full of shellfish -- that we begin to cheer up. This Latin American restaurant might turn out to be a find.

Tantalized by the smells and the look of the fish soup, a special that evening, we quickly order appetizers: the fish soup, black bean soup, shrimp ceviche, shrimp in garlic and palmetto salad. How can you go wrong ordering from a menu with so much shrimp?

The fish soup is heavenly. Although not every single piece of fish is perfectly cooked, the bowl is so chockablock with goodies -- mussels, clams and various finned seafood -- and the clear fish stock is so rich that we can't complain. The black bean soup is authentically Latin American. If you've only tried the canned type, you may find Fiesta Grill's peculiar, but we loved the translucent, salty broth, loaded with black beans and bacon.

Ceviche, a small terrine loaded with shrimp that were cured in lemon, tomato, onions and cilantro, is delightful. Shrimp with garlic has plenty of both shrimp and garlic, adding up to a simple, appetizing tapas-like dish. Palmetto salad -- hearts of palm on an ordinary nest of lettuce -- is pretty dull.

The entrees all look so good that we and our guests bicker and barter over who's getting what. We finally decide on stuffed salmon (the evening's special), shrimp carioca, churrasco mixto and Fiesta shrimp and chicken.

Redolent of curry and coconut, shrimp carioca is a very generous portion of tender shrimp, tomato and chilies, served on pasta. We would have preferred rice, probably because we expected it, but the flavors in this dish sing no matter what the chef serves it on.

Churrasco mixto, a mixed grill of chicken breast, pork chop and a small steak, has a distinctive, pleasantly unfamiliar Latin flavor that comes from the finely chopped vegetables, herbs, garlic and citrus vinaigrette in which the meats were marinated and finished. A larger steak is available by itself, also dressed with this Argentine sauce, which is sharp, fresh and bold.

Like the churrasco mixto, the stuffed salmon is delectable and different: The stuffing is a mixture of fine bread crumbs and spices that complements the flavor and texture of the fish nicely.

Fiesta shrimp and chicken sounds as if it might be a leftover surprise, but it is, as are most of the dishes on Fiesta Grill's menu, an old recipe with Spanish roots. The fish and fowl are sauteed with garlic and tomatoes, then served on yellow rice.

Though stuffed, we soldier on to the desserts. We try a pleasant-tasting if unspectacular flan, rice pudding with plenty of flavor but a bit too much liquid, and two desserts we've never heard of, pave and churros. The most interesting is pave, which is layers of ladyfingers, whipped cream and kiwi. The plain fried and then baked churros pastries are warm, cinnamony and surprisingly comforting.

Fiesta Grill is a family affair. Romeo and Julia Monterroso keep a friendly, watchful eye on the front of the house, while their son, Christian, works his magic behind the scenes.

After honing his cooking skills at Liberatore's, Oregon Grill and Linwood's, Christian finally has -- and deserves -- a kitchen of his own. We hope his tiny gem of a restaurant will catch on.

Fiesta Grill

11628 Reisterstown Road, Reisterstown

410-526-5580

Hours: Open daily for lunch and dinner

Credit cards: American Express, MasterCard,Visa

Prices: Appetizers, $1.95-$6.95; entrees, $5.95-$16.95

Food: ***

Service: ***

Atmosphere: **

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

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