Carolina's fits in with Fells Point just fine



Fells Point is still holding on to its down-at-the-heels charm.

So far, it has remained free of the gentrification and chain stores that have robbed the soul of so many once-charming neighborhoods. Locally owned restaurants and stores are the norm here, and prices, for the most part, are reasonable at both.

Even a relatively new restaurant, like Carolina's, which opened about five months ago where Cafe Madrid used to be, feels as though it has been around for a million years. The interior of this small space has potential, with its white tablecloths and clay-colored tile floors, but any hints of elegance are kept at bay by the narrow dining area, the fake roses in the vases on the tables and the television, on but silent, in one corner.

In short, Carolina's is a perfect fit for Fells Point.

And fortunately, the food is just as casual and without artifice as the atmosphere. Is it possible to be addicted to pupusas? The thin grilled tortilla sandwiches ($1.50-$2) at Carolina's were splotched with beautiful brown scorch marks and rich with corny tortilla flavor. The gooey cheese tasted of salt and smoke.

At Carolina's, the pupusas also come stuffed with bits of chicken, ground pork, beans or shrimp. A platter ($5.95) with three of these warm and slightly greasy treats makes a nice appetizer for a table of hungry customers. It arrives with a container of black beans, a mound of rice and a delicious serving of tart vinegary cabbage salad studded with onions and shredded carrot.

Carolina's claims to be a Tex-Mex restaurant, but it's really Spanish and Cuban and El Salvadoran and American, too. Fajitas ($12.99-$14.99), tacos ($8.50-$10.50) and all the other expected Tex-Mex items are on the menu, but so are paella ($20.95), Cuban sandwiches ($8.50), baby back ribs ($14.99) and cheeseburgers ($5.95). The dinner menu even boasts a filet mignon with broiled lobster tail ($32.99) and treats such as salmon relleno ($19.99), stuffed with creamed spinach and crabmeat. But for the most part, the prices stay well below $20.

Of course, all meals start with a basket of warm tortillas and the restaurant's spicy and fresh-tasting picante sauce. Our particular batch of tortillas, though crunchy and light, tasted better after we added a sprinkle of salt.

Carolina's doesn't have a bar, but it does have a liquor license, and it offers just the libations that you crave with this kind of food - Corona and Dos Equis, rum and Coke and sangrias.

The Mexican platter ($12.95) served as a lunch special one day was quite a hodgepodge of flavors, with steak, rice and beans, fried plantains, and even a few fried eggs and a hunk of white Mexican cheese thrown in for good measure. The steak, sliced thin and pounded until it had barely more substance than a doily, was salty, garlicky, cuminy and all-around delicious. The plantains were sweet and still slightly firm to the bite. The rice and beans were yummy. But the eggs seemed unnecessary to me.

Enchiladas ($6.95 as a lunch platter), bathed in mild green sauce, were enormous and delicious, stuffed with spicy shredded chicken or beef and topped with melted cheese. The burritos (another $6.95 lunch special), also filled with either chicken or beef, were just as generous and tasty.

The menu listed several desserts, including chocolate cake, cheesecake and a Mexican napoleon made with layers of cinnamon-dusted tortillas. But maybe because we went for lunch instead of dinner, we were told only flan ($3.99) was available.

The tiny circle, so strongly flavored it was almost bitter, was decorated with three squirts of fake whipped cream, each topped with a maraschino cherry. The cheerful tackiness of those dollops seemed like a fitting end to a meal that had started with fake red roses on the table.

Fells Point already had lots of restaurants that are unique and terrific and not fancy. With Carolina's, it now has one more.

Carolina's Tex-Mex Restaurant

Where: 505 S. Broadway, Fells Point

Call: 410-276-0711

Hours: 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 10 a.m. to midnight Friday, Saturday and Sunday

Credit cards: All major

Prices: Appetizers $1.50-$13.99, entrees $8.50-$32.99

Food: *** (3 STARS) Service: ** 1/2 ( 2 1/2 STARS)

Atmosphere: ** 1/2 ( 2 1/2 STARS)

(Outstanding: **** Good: *** Fair or uneven: ** Poor: *)

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