Austin Grill does Tex-Mex with side of creativity

Innovations include a salsa of the month

Eats: dining reviews, Table Talk

December 18, 2003|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The Austin Grill serves decent Tex-Mex food in a bright, cheerful setting. The concept is far from original, and the restaurant doesn't do much to differentiate itself from a sea of similar chains. Yet, like so many Tex-Mex restaurants, Austin Grill is a good place for tasty, reasonably priced fare, washed down with a margarita or three.

The 5-year-old Can Company restaurant is part of a small chain of seven restaurants, mostly in Washington and Virginia. Its spacious interior is inviting, with charming star-shaped light fixtures and bold prints on the walls. A stylish bar near the entrance has two televisions. On a recent night, they were tuned to The Simpsons before the football game started.

The menu is the usual assortment of quesadillas, fajitas, burritos, tacos and the like, as well as several specials that change daily. One of the restaurant's few stabs at originality is a "salsa of the month," which arrives on the table almost immediately, along with a basket of warm, crisp, grease-free chips and a more traditional tomato-and-onion based salsa.

During my visit, the salsa of the month was made with sweet potatoes and was made even more sugary with the addition of pineapple juice. The resulting golden puree was interesting but lacked a balancing savory element. It seemed more like the fulfillment of an assignment than a sincere effort to find a new way to dress a tortilla chip.

With an item as unusual as a sweet potato salsa, I'd like the server to offer some explanation when placing it on the table. Once we asked about it, she was happy to explain.

In general, our server did what she could to add personality to our experience. When she took our order, she pulled up an empty chair and sat down at our table. She did it again when we ordered dessert. I didn't mind, exactly, but I have to admit I found that forced bit of intimacy a little odd.

Her recommendations were right on the money. I particularly liked the taquitos, fried cigar-sized tortilla rolls filled with a wonderfully savory blend of potatoes and chicken. Another hit was a special featuring beautifully charred-on-the-outside chicken and sweet sauteed onion in soft tacos. Like other main courses, it was served with enormous piles of rice, refried beans and shredded lettuce.

She also warned us that the "pollo guisado," a chicken and bean burrito, would be very heavy on the black beans, and she was right. The beans dominated the dish.

And she gladly accommodated my friend's request to add both grilled portabella mushrooms and steak slices to a fajita salad that is usually served with one or the other. The meat would have been a better choice, though, as the mushrooms were coated in a harsh spice that did not marry well with the unexceptional salad.

The guacamole, a staple of Tex-Mex restaurants, also seemed unexceptional, even bland, though one of my friends said she hit an unpleasant pocket of spice. Maybe the seasonings just needed to be stirred in better.

It wasn't until dessert that Austin Grill finally rose above its genre. The Key lime pie, made in house, was outstanding, with real Key lime flavor asserting itself in the creamy filling. Even the crust was tender.

But then it was back to reality. The brownie sundae was unavailable, so we settled on vanilla ice cream with hot fudge. Sounded good, but the fudge had lost its texture and simply slid off the ice cream. It was a disappointment.

In the end, Austin Grill is what it is: a good, basic Tex-Mex restaurant.

Austin Grill

Where: 2400 Boston St., Canton

Call: 410-534-0606

Open: Lunch and dinner daily, brunch on Saturday and Sunday

Credit cards: All major cards

Prices: Appetizers $3.99-$12.99, entrees $5.99-$14.99

Food: ***

Service: ** 1/2

Atmosphere: ***

Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *

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