The meat dishes are a highlight at new Zapata's

Entrees venture well beyond tacos and burritos

Eats: dining reviews, Hot Stuff

May 13, 2004|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The revolutionary leader Emiliano Zapata may be a controversial figure in Mexican history, but he's certainly easy on the eyes. I know this because I recently ate at the new Zapata's restaurant in the Harper's Choice Village Center in Columbia, where photographs of the handsome Zapata, with his extravagant handlebar mustache, fairly smolder from the walls.

Cesar Flores says he named his 4-month-old restaurant for Zapata, who was assassinated in 1919, because, "We are Mexican ownership, we want to really have Mexican food, and there's nothing more Mexican than Zapata."

The menu boasts such traditional Mexican fare as pozole soup and tamales, as well as items more familiar to Americans, like burritos, quesadillas and tacos. There's also a children's menu with tacos, chicken fingers and a few other items.

Zapata's occupies the space formerly held by the short-lived Lily's Southwestern Bar and Grill. Flores, who has worked in the kitchens of El Azteca and La Palapa, both Howard County restaurants, kept the casual feel of the space but brightened the walls, replaced the fake flowers with real ones and put up pictures of Zapata, including several of him looking dashing on horseback. The adjoining bar area looks as if it hasn't changed much.

Flores also hired a mariachi band, which plays on Saturday nights. Loudly. Right near your table. When you're trying to order.

That annoyance aside, Zapata's has a lot going for it. The meats, in particular, are handled with care. The carnitas, large tender chunks of slightly fatty pork shoulder, were delicious and came on a bountiful platter that included a zesty pickled vegetable salad, a small bowl of tender, mild beans and a mound of seasoned rice.

Also good is the simple grilled taco sandwich called al pastor, stuffed with bits of pineapple and small chunks of pleasantly char-grilled pork. The taco wedges are attractively arranged around a mound of lettuce, salsa and sour cream, but the portions were on the small side. Hearty eaters may want this dish as an appetizer.

The chalupas also make a fine appetizer or light meal. The platter comes with two tortillas, one topped with rich shredded beef, the other with chicken in a slightly spicy sauce, as well as lettuce, salsa, sour cream, rice and beans.

However, not everything at Zapata's was as good. My least favorite dish was camarones al chipotle. The shrimp were mushy and cool on the inside, as though they had been frozen and then not properly defrosted, and the cream sauce was more spicy heat than flavor. It was served over rice with bits of asparagus, carrots, broccoli, onion and other vegetables.

I was also disappointed with the sangria, which was purple instead of a rich ruby red and almost unbearably sweet. Instead of oranges, the only fruits I could find were a maraschino cherry and a lime wedge.

Service was similarly uneven. Food arrived promptly, but our table was infrequently cleared, and fresh utensils and napkins were not provided when we needed them, even though the restaurant was only half-full.

I was surprised when our server told us the chips and salsa were $1.90, not free as in most Mexican restaurants. But the delicately salted and nongreasy tortilla wedges and the richly flavored salsa, both served warm, were definitely worth the price. The guacamole, on the other hand, though clearly fresh, was almost completely lacking in flavor and not worth the $3.

Zapata's offers a large dessert selection, and nearly all are made in-house, except the chocolate cake and the mango sorbet. Pastel tres leches was quite good, light and not overly sweet. The flan, however, lacked the requisite silkiness and was entirely forgettable in flavor.

The best dessert choice by far is the churros, rolls of tender pastry filled with an apple-cinnamon mix and served warm with a dollop of whipped cream and a drizzle of chocolate sauce.

It's possible to have a really enjoyable meal at Zapata's. Just order carefully.

Zapata's

Where: 5485 Harper's Farm Road, Columbia

Call: 410-715-6929

Open: Lunch and dinner daily

Credit cards: All major

Prices: Appetizers $5-$10, entrees $9-$16

Food: ** 1/2

Service: **

Atmosphere: ** 1/2

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