Tex-Mex with a French accent

February 28, 2002|By Robin Tunnicliff Reid | Robin Tunnicliff Reid,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

TEX-MEX food has become tiresome to me. Too much cheese and sour cream. Too much shredded lettuce and beans. Too much Texas braggadocio. You get the picture.

So it was with a heavy heart that I took two friends to Armadillo's Tex-Mex Cafe, which opened two months ago in Fells Point. I couldn't make excuses any longer; duty called.

The restaurant's cheerful yellow exterior and striped awning looked appealing, at least. Inside, there were cheese and beans on the menu all right, even sour cream and some Texas-style paraphernalia hanging on the walls.

But this cozy spot stands out from the pack of Tex-Mex places. The reason: the chef's willingness to bring a light touch to what can often be very heavy fare.

For example, fried catfish fingers came with a thick, sweet, rather Continental aioli of marmalade, mayonnaise and cayenne pepper.

The Veiga salad consisted of mesclun, blue cheese and thin slivers of tart green apples doused liberally with mango vinaigrette. The only thing blatantly Tex-Mex about a steak chipotle entree was the name.

When I've ordered steaks at Tex-Mex places in the past, I typically wind up with a large slab of meat. Nothing wrong with that. But at Armadillo's, I received long slices of tender, grilled flank steak that were easy to cut into bite-sized pieces.

To overcome any toughness in the meat, the chef pierced it before cooking, thereby breaking down the sinews and allowing a citrusy marinade to seep in. Making the meat even better was the very French roasted-garlic wine-reduction sauce ladled over the top.

A grilled chicken quesadilla and enchiladas were more like traditional Tex-Mex dishes. But neither one was overburdened with cheese. A rich tomato sauce gave the quesadilla a warm, fruity taste, while a liberal dose of red onions in the enchilada provided a nice, kicky aftertaste. And because the chicken had been marinated in lime, lemon and orange juices before grilling, the meat had a surprisingly tangy bite.

Side dishes were solid, but not as outstanding as the main courses. The best was the golden dollop of mashed potatoes laced with yellow corn and sliced scallions that accompanied the steak. Mexican rice and black beans were memorable for consistency rather than taste.

Armadillo's serves only one dessert at the moment: fried cheesecake. It's much better than it sounds. Two cinnamon-dusted rolls of fried pastry wrapped around a light cheesecake filling gave us just the right amount of sweetness needed to end the meal.

We had relatively little to complain about. Our server was on the ball and called us "hon." We felt snug tucked away in a Naugahyde-covered booth in the back of the room. And we loved the fact that all food came on Fiesta ware. Well, all but the Veiga salad, and therein was Armadillo's only real flaw: The edible bowl was stale.

That quibble aside, Armadillo has restored my taste for Tex-Mex. As long as it's got a little French twist.

Armadillo's Tex-Mex Cafe

700 S. Broadway

410-342-1233

Open: Lunch and dinner daily

Credit cards: AE, D, M, V

Prices: Appetizers $4.95 to $9.95; entrees $5.95 to $13.95

Food: ***

Service: ***

Atmosphere: ***

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