IF YOU haven't been to Upper Fells Point lately, you might be surprised to discover that the dominant influence now is Hispanic. Signs for the restaurants, markets, stores and Pentecostal churches in a three-block stretch of South Broadway are in Spanish, reflecting a customer base that's mainly from Central America and the Caribbean.
The Latino feel of the enclave flies in the face of the most recent U.S. Census figures, which say that Baltimore's Hispanic population increased in the last decade to 11,061 in 2000 from 1990's 7,602. Carmen Nieves of the Hispanic organization Centro de la Comunidad dismisses those figures. She estimates that between 20,000 and 25,000 Hispanics have moved into the city since 1990, settling in Upper Fells Point and along Eastern Avenue toward the county line. And businesses have cropped up gradually to serve that influx.
Fabi's restaurant is one of those businesses. Fabi Zelya and his girlfriend, Maria Ortiz, opened shop in an old real estate office on South Broadway near the corner of East Baltimore Street. The three-page menu is an ambitious collection of food and drink from their homelands, El Salvador and Puerto Rico, respectively, as well as Cuba and the Dominican Republic.
This is the sort of place where you can cobble a nice meal together from appetizers alone, because there are a lot of them. The tostones o patacones (crushed green fried plantains) was delicious - plump discs of mashed unripe plantains fried to a greaseless crisp, then sprinkled with Parmesan cheese. The other plantain offering, a typical Salvadoran dish called platanos maduros con crema (sweet fried plantains with cream), featured ripe fruit that you dipped into sour cream for contrast.
The flavor of corn in the soft, warm tortillas used in the pupusas held its own against the melted feta and mozzarella cheese filling. The appetizer came with a side salad of shredded cabbage, carrots and onions topped with a dollop of spicy tomato sauce. The small side dish packed far more punch than the garden salad, which was an unimaginative stack of iceberg lettuce, tomatoes and feta chunks.
We found the Puerto Rican "typical plate" disappointing. Whatever flavor that Spanish spices, garlic and vinegar could have imparted to the grilled pork seeped out in the cooking process. The meat fell off the bone, yet was far too fatty. A hefty portion of bland yellow rice dotted with green peas didn't add much taste to the entree.
Fabi's well-intentioned staff has some kinks to work out. When we tried to order the crushed beef eye round fried in onions and lime juice, the chef said he did not know how to make it because it was a new addition to the menu. (Zelya later said this should not have happened.)
Then there's the television, an asset in a bar and a disaster in a dining room, especially a small one. Our waitress turned the distracting television down - but not off - after we asked.
Another kink - to some - is that Fabi's does not have a liquor license. However, Fells Point is one part of town not lacking in access to alcohol; I counted three liquor stores within four blocks. So, it's easy to have drinks here with a little planning. And with the money you've saved from not having to pay the markup that restaurants pass along with alcohol, you can splurge on Fabi's tall, thick, creamy fruit shakes.
206 S. Broadway
Open: for lunch and dinner daily
Prices: appetizers $1 to $6.25; entrees $5.99 to $11.99
Credit cards: all major cards
Food: * *
Service: * *
Atmosphere: * 1/2