Mexican village cooking served in a charming courtyard

Arcos' short menu will satisfy, but won't break the bank

Sunday Gourmet

July 10, 2005|By Elizabeth Large | By Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

Arcos is unusual for a restaurant because the food seems to be something of an afterthought. Luckily, it's a good afterthought.

When Nicolas Ramos, a Mexican native who is in the construction business, decided to open a restaurant in Upper Fells Point, its looks -- of course -- were important to him. He did the renovation himself, predominantly out of recycled materials from places being torn down in the area, like doors from the Munsey Building and marble from the old Congress Hotel on Franklin Street. He spent so much time at the construction site, says his wife, Tania, that she would bring their four children there to spend the night with him in sleeping bags.

Arcos' bar and the dining room in back is a cool, dark grotto, with arches (not a surprise, given the name), heavy wooden beams and bricks, some as old as the 1880s. Benches came from a local church, while Ramos got some of the windows and light fixtures from another church being demolished in Washington. With its flickering candles, the narrow dining room has an interesting spiritual feel -- interesting given the lively bar scene.

But don't stop at the bar, with its huge flat-screen TV, or in the dining room. Keep going to the courtyard out back: a series of spaces created with old bricks and recycled, highly polished wood. Some of the tables are copper-topped, some vintage wood, some marble. There are baskets of bright flowers hung everywhere. The courtyard would be even more charming without the tiki-hut-style bar and large sign advertising the house margaritas, but it's still a nice place to be.

I was expecting Arcos the restaurant, while right now, several months after opening, the emphasis is still on Arcos the bar. For instance, every Friday from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. there's live music, with a free Mexican buffet, $2.50 Coronas and $3.50 margaritas. Apparently the permanent kitchen isn't finished yet. I personally wouldn't open a restaurant until the kitchen was finished, but that's just me.

The short menu of daily specials -- about a dozen items -- is the only menu, although the person who seated us promised that a new, expanded menu was coming soon, with more dishes and some salads and desserts. Right now, the cut-up fruit in the sangria is about as close as you'll get to dessert. (That sangria, by the way, packs quite an alcoholic punch.)

Still, what we had showed us what the kitchen will be capable of. The food is dirt cheap, but it doesn't look or taste dirt cheap. It's presented with flair, the chic curvy-sided white plates decorated with a confetti of diced red, yellow and orange peppers. That can make even a plate of brown enchiladas in brown mole sauce look artistic.

The enchiladas, by the way, are an absolute must-have. The corn tortillas are soft, but they have crisp edges for wonderful textural contrast. They wrap around white meat chicken and bathe in a dark, smoky mole sauce, with shredded cheddar and sour cream on top.

The other dish that shouldn't be missed is a side order of frijoles charros, a sort of grown-up's version of baked beans with more flavor, a more delicate sauce and less sweetness.

Most of the menu is meat. The idea behind it is authentic Mexican village cooking, so you'll find dishes like tripe soup and beef tongue; but, no surprise, everyone around us was getting tacos and the like.

The house specialty seems to be barbacoa, either lamb or beef (I found the beef more tender and flavorful.) Both are slow-cooked, and the result is surprisingly moist, gently spiced and served without a sauce. Both come with rice studded with corn and peas, a small iceberg lettuce salad and warm tortillas. All this for $8.50.

The one seafood item is a Mexican shrimp cocktail, which turned out to be steamed shrimp chilled and floating in a bowl of hot sauce, prettily garnished with chopped tomato, onion and avocado slices. Which brings up the one serious omission on the current menu. I can live without salads and desserts, but it would have been nice to have guacamole.

With much to love here, I would skip the tostadas, a crisp, almost burned tortilla covered with refried beans, shredded chicken, lettuce, cheese and sour cream. Go for the enchiladas instead.

There is no way the four of us could have spent $100 at Arcos unless we drank ourselves under the table. These are the kind of prices you expect to find at a hole-in-the-wall. Instead you get one of the nicest places to eat and drink outdoors in the city.


Where: 129 S. Broadway

Hours: Open Tuesday through Sunday for lunch and dinner

Prices: $2.50-$8.50

Call: 410-522-4777

Food: *** (3 stars)

Service: ** 1/2 (2 1/2 stars)

Atmosphere: *** (3 stars)

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

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.