This is retirement?
After more than 30 years in the workforce (she as an Anne Arundel music teacher, he as a research scientist for the National Institutes of Health), Petra and Marco Pineyro decided to while away their golden years by opening a restaurant.
Their retirement project, Kiko's Cucina Mexicana, a family-friendly restaurant on Belair Road, serves classic Mexican favorites, from fajitas and tacos to more ambitious offerings like snapper vera cruz ($14.95) and chicken mole ($11.95).
They certainly didn't make the job easy for themselves. First, they converted a former electronics store into the cheery restaurant, doing all the decorating themselves.
And since they opened - about nine months ago - they've been making nearly everything from scratch, from salsas and guacamole to tortillas and desserts.
And in case they weren't putting in enough hours, they decided to serve breakfast on weekend mornings, a selection that includes huevos rancheros ($3.99) with eggs, salsa and refried beans on corn tortillas, and breakfast burritos ($2.39-$2.99) with various combinations of spicy house-made chorizo, refried beans, eggs, bacon, potatoes and cheese.
For the Pineyros, who hail from Laredo, Texas, but have been in the Baltimore area for more than 30 years, the restaurant allows them to offer the kind of food they love. And for customers, Kiko's is a treat.
The mood is set right after you walk in. Kiko's is in a shopping center on busy Belair Road, but after you walk in the standard metal-and-glass door, you almost immediately walk through another door - a rough wooden one in a bright yellow frame.
That door is the psychological barrier between the gray world of Belair Road and the colorful atmosphere of the restaurant.
A row of faux windows with purple frames sits high on the walls, which are painted in sunny yellows and sky blues. Bright flags are strung from the ceilings, and even the paper flowers on the tables explode in purples, greens and yellows. Tables are topped in blue and white tile, and food is served on primary-color ceramic plates.
Kiko's does not have a liquor license, but the owners would like to get one. Meanwhile, customers are encouraged to bring wine if they want.
When the restaurant is not busy, you can have your guacamole ($7.95) smashed and mixed right at your table, but as the restaurant's reputation grows, it seems likely that moments of non-busyness will disappear.
On our Sunday night visit, the place was buzzing, and we had to settle for guacamole without the show. The generous portion was admirably fresh and boasted just the right mixture of avocado lumps and creaminess, but, truth be told, it was bland. We preferred the salsa, a soupy mix with a slightly sweet underpinning, but enough heat to create interest. Both were served with crisp tortilla chips.
From chips to dessert, everything served at Kiko's reflected a sense that the people in the kitchen care about what they're doing.
Chicken flautas ($9.25 for a plate of three) were little more than shredded meat inside fried cigar-sized tortilla rolls, but the corn flavor of the tortillas and the greaselessness of these simple treats elevated them above the norm. A simple cheese quesadilla appetizer ($4.95) had particularly flavorful cheese.
Kiko's is trying so hard to please, but some of the food lacks excitement. A special one night, pork slices in quince sauce ($12.95) featured three slices of lean pork, coated in a sweet and slightly tart sauce and served with a smattering of roasted potatoes. It was very nice but didn't set my heart racing.
Likewise the bistec a la Milanesa ($13.95), a breaded and fried sirloin, which was similar to a chicken-fried steak but not as heavy. This dish, which came with rice, refried beans, roasted potatoes and guacamole, was fine as far as it went, but lacked that certain spicy zing.
Even desserts are made in-house at Kiko's, and include flan ($6.95), rice pudding ($3.95) and bunuelos ($3.50), an ice-cream sundae with fried tortillas and cinnamon. The rice pudding, creamy and spiked with cinnamon, was as fresh and thoughtfully prepared as everything else at Kiko's. Its soothing sweetness would have been even better had it followed a more fiery meal.
Kiko's Cucina Mexicana
Where: 8806 Belair Road, Perry Hall
Open: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday, 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday, 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday
Credit cards: All major
Prices: Appetizers $5.95-$11.95, entrees $9.95-$15.95
Food: *** (3 STARS)
Service: *** (3 STARS)
Atmosphere: *** 1/2 ( 3 1/2 STARS)
Outstanding: **** Good: *** Fair or uneven: ** Poor: *