Barrio On Broadway

Past the Waterfront and beyond Bertha's Spanish Town flourishes in Upper Fells Point

April 30, 2001|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,SUN STAFF

In Spanish Town, the early afternoons are for business, food and daydreams.

Pedro Canderio sits behind the counter in his Latin music store on Broadway, his girlfriend on his lap. On the walls, $7.99 bullfighting and "Last Supper" tapestries hang above racks of Los Gator Bravos and Invencibles CDs. A soap opera plays from a TV in the back.

"I look in here and see," he says, "a gorgeous restaurant."

There's not a customer in the place. But Don Pedro doesn't seem to mind. In this prime space, Canderio sees a hot Hispanic restaurant. He hears tourists gush.

"To me, this is the good life," he says.

At Fabi's Restaurant on Broadway, a late lunch crowd fills tables. Hola, amigo. A Spanish soap opera fills the TV screen here, too. A wailing woman (makeup intact) is placed in a straitjacket as the iced tea is served. On a competing sound system, Ricky Martin sings about living the crazy life. Perfect plantains are then served.

"You eat with the rhythm, amigo," says Jose Ruiz, the Hispanic liaison for the City of Baltimore.

He picked the restaurant; he picked the food; he did not pick the music or soap opera. But Latinos love to eat to music, and they love to have their soap operas going breakfast, lunch and dinner, Ruiz says with authority.

"Let me tell you about this place, amigo."

In the 1970s, maybe one Hispanic grocer was in business in Upper Fells Point, Ruiz remembers. Now, this community, located roughly between Eastern Avenue and Baltimore Street, is lined with Latino restaurants, grocery stories, churches, travel agents and music stores. It's informally called Spanish Town - an official city designation is in the works (and has been for years).

While U.S. Census figures suggest Hispanics and other immigrants passed over Baltimore in the 1990s, Spanish Town has never looked livelier. It's worth looking around and exploring beyond the waterfront, for a change.

Feels like Mexico

Past Eastern Avenue, the Fells Point of Bertha's and Jimmy's gives way quickly to the likes of Guate-Express Travel Agency (Rio - $598; Caracas - $429) and the El Salvador Restaurant (Daily Special: Pupusas). Chances are zero you'll hear the Talking Heads' "Psycho Killer" escaping any doorway, as you would from the Cat's Eye Pub a few blocks away.

In this part of town, merengue music or the Latin sounds of Luis Vargas or Los Mismos might jump from a storefront speaker.

"It just feels different - you feel like you're in Mexico," says Heber Portillo, owner of the El Salvador Restaurant.

It's the same old story - but the story has caught its second wind. For years, Portillo and other businessmen envisioned a redesigned Spanish Town, a cleaner and prettier Broadway, with Spanish architecture fashioning the neighborhood. Bright colors - pink and blues everywhere. "Not just this regular brick," says Portillo.

The neighborhood also needs a sign, like in Little Italy. "Welcome to Spanish Town" is one good idea, one good dream.

A Web site called Baltimore Latino is up: Our goal is to help promote Hispanic business in the Digital City. Imagine the merchandising: "EAT MADRID'S TAPAS" isn't as catchy as "EAT BERTHA'S MUSSELS," but Spanish Town restaurants such as Cafe Madrid wouldn't mind Berthonian name recognition and the attendant suburban and out-of-towner dollars.

"We want people to think this is a place to get good, fresh food and meet decent, family-oriented people who will make you feel at home," says Ruiz, a charismatic front man for Spanish Town. "Come here and hear 'Spanglish!' "

Or hear "Cristina."

"It's like 'Jerry,' " says hair stylist Aurora Starkey. And we automatically know she means "The Jerry Springer Show."

At 4 p.m., in the Estetica Latina hair salon, Starkey finishes up with a client. The TV blares "Cristina" - no "Weakest Link" here. Starkey, who was born in Mexico and moved to Glen Burnie nine years ago, watches a warring couple on TV. Unfaithful spouses teeing off in Spanish. Every culture must have its own Jerry Springer. Universal language of the damned.

"I talk my language with my clients," Starkey says. No "Spanglish," just Spanish, just like back home in Mexico. "I feel this is my country. It doesn't feel like Baltimore."

But it can.

One quirky trait of Fells Point (lower, upper or sideways) is the eclectic company it keeps. Art galleries and palm readers and sticky leather shops and theater groups all share the same Broadway street. Not many neighborhoods have boxing rings housed above adult novelty stores. In Spanish Town, there's an Hispanic Christian bookstore across the street from Whitey's News Stand, which sells magazines that would never show their covers in a Christian bookstore.

Confesiones are scheduled for Hispanics at St. Patrick's, not far from a scheduled showing of "She Town" at the Apex Theater.

If you're in the mood for some light, sensitive reading, lower Fells Point offers bumper stickers that say, "Join the War on Poverty. Beat up a Beggar."

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