Taco Fiesta brings a sunny disposition to the harbor area

Mexican standards with fish and veggie dishes

Eats: Dining Reviews Hot Stuff

July 22, 2004|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Taco Fiesta is so colorfully decorated, the food is so expertly prepared and the service is so sunny and efficient that the restaurant must be part of a chain.

But it's not.

There's only one Taco Fiesta, and it is owned by Jerry Gutierrez. After 12 years in College Park, he sold that location and, in February, opened in Baltimore.

His new space, on Exeter Street within walking distance of the Inner Harbor, is much larger, but the menu is basically the same - the standard tacos, burritos, chips and chimichangas one finds in Mexican restaurants, with a heavier than usual selection of fish and vegetarian items.

One reason the restaurant feels like a chain is that it's so cleverly marketed. Taco Fiesta has a Web site (www.tacofies ta.com) and nice-looking menus printed on heavy paper. It sells T-shirts and baseball caps sporting its logo. It even has a slogan - fast fresh fun. While this may not be the most original slogan in the world, Taco Fiesta had the good sense to set a standard that it could meet.

Everything about this casual two-story restaurant seems designed to put patrons in a good mood, from the classic Stones and Fleetwood Mac songs to the citrusy yellow and orange walls painted with large tomatoes, onions and jalepeno peppers.

A bar on the second floor is decorated with blue Mexican tile, and several of the tables are also painted in bright colors. If nobody's behind the bar, you can order drinks, including the restaurant's FiestaRita - a mix of lemon and lime juices, tequila and orange Curacao - from the downstairs counter where you place your order.

The employees behind the counter are cheerful and refreshingly on the ball. The food seems to arrive at your table moments after it is ordered. Of course, the chips and guacamole arrive first. The guac is a particularly tasty version, with enough salt and tart lemon flavor to cut through the creaminess of the avocado.

I especially liked the fish taco, which costs all of $2.99 and includes a substantial piece of fried tilapia in a small, very flavorful corn tortilla with vegetables, a smattering of shredded cheese and a creamy pink, slightly spicy sauce.

For carb-watchers, Fiesta bowls include grilled meats or veggies, plus rice and beans, some chopped tomato, onions and cilantro, shredded cheese and a dollop of guacamole. The steak in this dish, while not overly tender, did have a satisfying grilled flavor. I suppose you can get them without rice and beans if you're really low-carb crazy, but the beans have such a delicious, mellow flavor it would be a shame to miss them.

There are also many vegetarian items, and the beans are cooked without lard. Though the menu isn't lengthy, Taco Fiesta seems to offer something for everyone.

My only disappointment was with the taquitos. I ordered a platter with both chicken and steak taquitos, and found both to be overly oily fried taco cylinders surrounding dry, flavorless meat. This was a surprise, since other items were so satisfying.

One of Taco Fiesta's nicest features is its salsa bar, which offers seven salsas of varying degrees of intensity, including a fiery mango salsa, a standard salsa and a "Pancho Villa" salsa flavored with cinnamon.

There are no desserts, but Gutierrez says he's working on it. He also says he has no immediate plans to expand, but he wouldn't mind opening other locations some day.

Who knows? Taco Fiesta may become a chain some day after all.

Taco Fiesta

Where: 618 S. Exeter St.

Call: 410-2FIESTA (410-234-3782)

Open: Daily from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Credit cards: All major

Prices: Appetizers and sides $1.89-$7.19, entrees $2.39-$8.89

Food: ***

Service: ***

Atmosphere: ***

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