Tex-Mex spiced up with a bit of drama

Eats

April 19, 2001|By Robin Tunnicliff Reid | Robin Tunnicliff Reid,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Don't be fooled by the ferocious dragons guarding the entrance to Dragon's Breath Burritos. The Chinese influence pervading the atmosphere doesn't carry over to the menu - for a good reason: "I don't know Chinese food," says owner and co-cook John Goodson.

So when he decided to open a restaurant, he went with something he knew: simple, healthy, inexpensive food in the Tex-Mex vein. He chose the name because it conjured up the taste of spicy-hot salsas. Throw the Chinese and Tex-Mex cultures together, and you've got an eclectic little eatery that's brought some funk to Hamilton since opening in October.

Part of Dragon's Breath's appeal is physical. The storybook cottage with a steep-pitched roof near the corner of Harford Road and White Avenue had been a Toddle House, Steak & Egg and pit-beef place before it was vacated about five years ago.

Goodson saw character in the empty building and enlisted the help of talented friends in the renovation. Local artist Dru Bynum did the dramatic interior murals of dragons soaring above orange-red flames. Another local artist, Chris Wisted, made the counter out of wood and tile, some of which came from the house Goodson was renovating.

If you're lucky, you might be able to snag one of the six stools at that counter and watch Goodson and another cook in action. Unfortunately, there'll be no other seating until the weather warms up enough for Goodson to put a few tables out front. Because of space limitations, Dragon's Breath is mainly a carryout place, with limited home delivery too.

The food is pretty good for the most part, portions are ample and you can add a number of extra veggies to your entree for a small price.

The chili mango salsa got the best reviews from our group for its unusual sweet-salty flavor. Goodson blends the right amount of tiny fruit chunks with tomatoes, green chilies, onions and a sprinkle of green pepper. We preferred it to the smoked ancho-chili salsa; the taste of smoked tomatoes and peppers overpowered all other ingredients. We found the same overly smoky taste in the grilled portobello mushroom tacos.

Goodson buys his tortillas from Moctec, a local company that specializes in making the round unleavened bread. After a quick fry, the tortillas turn into terrific, slightly chewy chips, not the brittle ones that fall apart after the first bite.

Anything topped with melted cheese sounds like promising comfort food, and the ground-beef quesadilla at Dragon's Breath doesn't disappoint. The beef gets a little boost from some garlic, thyme, oregano, basil and tomatoes.

Spices lend some complexity to another simple dish: black beans and rice. After tinkering with his recipe for a few months, Goodson decided upon a combination of 15 spices, with a little lime juice and red-wine vinegar thrown in. We liked the result but thought the dish would have been even better if the rice had not been overcooked.

For a small place where one man basically creates the recipes (and often grows the ingredients) for the food he cooks, Dragon's Breath deserves a visit. You can see that everything Goodson uses is pretty fresh because the kitchen is right before your eyes.

Service can require patience because more than six customers constitutes a crowd. But, when you examine the other dining options in the neighborhood - mainly bars and pizza places - Dragon's Breath stands out as a fresh, healthy addition.

Dragon's Breath Burritos

5713 Harford Road

410-254-8000

Hours: Open for lunch and dinner Mondays to Saturdays

Prices: Appetizers $2.50 to $4; entrees $4 to $5.50

Credit cards: None accepted

Food: **1/2

Service: **

Atmosphere: ***1/2

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