New wave Latin cuisine awaits those who dare

Creative dishes join tried-and-true Tex-Mex at Loco Hombre

Sunday Gourmet

December 21, 2003|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

Nine years ago when it opened, Loco Hombre seemed to have the magic formula. The kitchen dished out Tex-Mex -- not exactly gourmet Tex-Mex, but a cut above the ordinary -- to Roland Parkers, who stood in line to get a table.

But there comes a time in every restaurant's life (unless it's Marconi's), when it has to transform itself to stay healthy. Eddie Dopkin, president of Classic Restaurant Management LLC, the company that owns Loco Hombre and Alonso's next door, says the changes have been made because the palates of his customers have changed. Maybe so. Maybe it's just that restaurantgoers are always looking for the next new thing. But for whatever reason, Loco Hombre now has a handsome new decor; a new chef, Michael Chmar -- whose last culinary stop was Red Sage in Washington -- and a menu of new wave Latin cuisine.

Still, I wonder if customers are really ordering the grilled duck breast with a white bean and bacon chimichanga, sweet pepper corn relish, goat cheese and red wine, or just sticking to the fajitas, enchiladas and burritos buried in the back of the menu. My guess is that this newfangled food is a hard sell, especially when the platos principales average $20 and the waiter is telling the customers that arugula is a kind of spinach. And I may be right, judging from the fact that the chef came out and practically kissed us on the forehead for ordering the new dishes. I can see his point. It must be really boring to make nachos with melted cheese all the time.

Chef Chmar is also turning out seasonal specialties like grouper with cranberry sauce. (There was also arugula.) The grouper itself was pristine, with a mango marinade -- or so our waiter told us. I didn't notice it because of the cranberries. For some reason (I can't believe I'm saying this), the combination worked better than it should have.

On another friend's plate, a mashed white bean chimichanga made a nice textural contrast to slices of just-pink duck breast. Flavors of goat cheese, wine, rosemary and a corn relish squabbled, but finally decided to get along. A lot happens on these plates. Sometimes a less complicated arrangement works best, like Loco Hombre's grilled tenderloin, flanked by mushroom and sour cream enchiladas and spinach.

The meat dishes are a success here because they can stand up to the bold sauces and offbeat accompaniments. A fat pork chop flourished in its red pepper sauce, flanked by squash, corn relish and a crisply fried boniato (Cuban sweet potato) cake.

Instead of appetizers, Loco Hombre has tapas, which are substantial, just as complicated as its platos principales and, with a salad, could be a light supper. The best of them was a corn tamale filled with chopped grilled vegetables and steamed in banana leaves. But flaky empanadas hold their own, fat with grilled chicken, smoky bacon and peppers, with a yogurt sauce and the sweet crunch of jicama. An upscale take on quesadillas begins with house-made corn tortillas and proceeds to a complicated construction of blue cheese, spinach, sun-dried tomatoes and cremini mushrooms. A bit tricky, but interesting.

"A Flight of Ceviche" was the least successful of our tapas. It involved tuna, salmon and shrimp marinated in different citrus juices and treated in different ways -- sauced or not, tossed with peppers or not, with onion, with capers, with tomato, with green olives. Or not. Any one of the three ceviches would have been fine, all three was overdoing it.

Desserts follow the pattern of marrying American cuisine with Latin flavors and ingredients, like the sweet-potato pecan tamale, a Mexican version of sweet potato pie. There is grilled angel food cake (don't ask me why it's grilled) with berries and homemade frozen yogurt. There are banana-peanut butter custards with chocolate sauce and an elaborate brownie concoction. But if you're not a big dessert eater, my advice is to ask for the homemade chocolate chip ice cream on its own. It's fabulous; the rest is just a distraction.

Whether you want to try the new cuisine or stick to the tried and true, Loco Hombre's newly renovated dining room is a very pleasant place to eat, particularly this time of year with its festive holiday decorations. The colors are warm, the booths are comfortable and the Christmas music is sung in Spanish.

The restaurant has wisely not thrown out the baby with the bath water: The things you liked about the place, like the personable staff and the margaritas, are still there. It's just that some new things have been added.

Loco Hombre

Food: ** 1/2

Service: ***

Atmosphere: ***

Where: 413 West Cold Spring Lane, Roland Park

Hours: Open for lunch and dinner daily; brunch on Saturday and Sunday

Prices: Appetizers, $4-$10; main courses, $11-$26

Call: 410-889-2233

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

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