Big changes are rocking Holy Frijoles, the teeny and beany restaurant on hipper-all-the-time 36th Street in Hampden.
Last November, the tiny 7-year-old Mexican restaurant finally got a liquor license. Now, the restaurant is expanding into the adjoining property.
The expansion, expected to be ready for action some time in November, will give Holy Frijoles a proper bar, plus couches, pinball machines and other stuff designed to encourage lingering.
Eventually, the menu will be expanded beyond the basic bean-driven dishes of burritos, chimichangas and tacos to include some seafood selections, and maybe a few specials each night, said owner Geoff Danek.
With all these changes afoot, it seemed like a good time to check out Holy Frijoles and get a base-line reading on the place. As it is now, the restaurant is short on space and long on personality, with colorful artwork on the walls and swinging doors that let patrons see into the kitchen. Though there were no lines the night we were there, Holy Frijoles is known to attract crowds of people willing to wait for mountainous piles of cheap, flavorful food.
When our server arrived, I made a mental note to remember him as the scruffy, pierced one but soon realized that my description seemed to fit many on the staff, at least the night we were there. Service was quick and friendly. Wonderfully crisp, warm chips arrived as soon as we sat down, along with chunky, lively salsa, which is made fresh daily, according to the menu. We also got guacamole, which was almost great except that it was a touch too salty.
Before we ordered, our server asked if we were vegetarians, so he could make recommendations accordingly. My eating buddies and I happen to be carnivores, but we liked that all the dishes without meat are vegetarian, even the refried beans, which are typically made with animal fat.
The restaurant now serves only beer, wine and tequila but will offer a full range of liquors after it expands. On the down side, the restaurant has only a six-day liquor license, and we were there on the seventh day. On the up side, we had a lovely lemon-limeade, and fountain drinks were refilled for free.
Soon we were tucking into a major chili relleno, roughly the size of a submarine. This is a mild green pepper, stuffed with cheese and then fried. Though the exterior was greaseless and golden, this tasty treat is obviously not part of anybody's well-balanced diet. A little more zing, maybe from a more exciting cheese or a slightly spicier pepper, and it would have actually been worth the calories.
For main courses, diners can choose from standards like tacos, burritos or enchiladas, then get them with fillings that stray beyond the basics to include spicy chorizo sausage or grilled veggies.
All the main dishes are enormous and arrive on plates heaping with food, including rice, sour cream, shredded lettuce and refried beans. While my buddies and I agreed that the refried beans were close to heavenly, the Spanish-style rice was unexciting and distinctly down-to-earth.
A burrito with steak and black beans was a favorite of the table, thanks to fantastic black beans and tender chunks of beef in an enormous flour tortilla. Crisp hard-shelled tacos with chorizo, shredded cheese, lettuce and picante sauce were also popular. The only mixed review was for the chicken enchilada, which would have been fine except for an overly spicy sauce.
Holy Frijoles doesn't serve desserts, but Danek said that may change after the expansion. He's thinking of adding flan and Key lime squares, he said. But he's wisely choosing to move slowly when tinkering with a place that's popular.
Where: 908 W. 36 St., Hampden
Call: 410-235-BEAN (2326)
Open: Lunch and dinner daily
Credit cards: MC, V
Prices: Appetizers, $4.95-$8.95; entrees $5.95-$11.95
Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *