A bar with a little extra

Restaurant Review

May 28, 2006|By ELIZABETH LARGE | ELIZABETH LARGE,SUN RESTAURANT CRITIC

Some places do exactly what they set out to do, and for that you have to give them credit. Others even do a bit more than you expect, which is the case of Power Plant Live's newest bar, Mex. Notice I said bar, not restaurant. Anyone going there who expects a full-fledged Mexican restaurant will be disappointed.

I decided to review Mex anyway, because Power Plant Live is such a high profile part of the downtown scene, but I didn't expect any more than the "chow" that its Web site, mexbaltimore.com, promises. There's no separate dining room, just a big oak-and-tile island bar flanked by two lounge areas. I imagine the place could get very loud and smoky, but it wasn't on the night we were there. The best tables are the V-shaped booths along the walls, with comfortable leather seating and at least the illusion of intimacy.

The look is faux rustic meets industrial chic, with lots of screens projecting southwestern scenes (and sometimes a ball game), exposed bricks and pipes, a log-cabin wall, and the colors of the west -- burnt sienna, terra cotta, turquoise. The music ranged from country to Dire Straits, suggesting to me that Mex is going for a slightly older crowd than Lucille's, the former tenant, did.

The drinks of choice are margaritas and Mexican beer, no surprise there. Tortilla chips and salsa arrive at your table as you sit down. I was expecting to follow them with bar food.

What came next, though, was a cut above the usual. We ordered guacamole, and a server arrived at our table with all the ingredients. He peeled, pitted and mashed ripe avocados while we watched and then we chose what other ingredients to add: chopped tomato, a bit of red onion, freshly squeezed lime juice, a dash of pepper and lots of fresh cilantro. The result was excellent, only next time I'd ask the preparer to go a little easier on the salt.

If you don't feel like a full meal, the guacamole and the "el corn" appetizer would be all you need. The first courses all come with the same price tag ($6.75), which has the odd effect of making some of them a serving for one (the shrimp), some for two (the guacamole) and some for three (the corn). You get three ears of grilled sweet corn sprinkled with chili powder and lots of cojita cheese (something like parmesan). The result is sweet, hot and salty -- a great combination that will be even better when corn is in season.

Mex has the tacos and burritos you'd expect, as well as some Southwestern-theme dinner salads. If you want more in the way of a real dinner, try one of the three house specialties for $13. The best is the skirt steak, marinated to within an inch of its life so it's surprisingly tender. It's a thin piece of beef, but the cook (surely he wouldn't want you to call him a chef) manages to char the steak on the outside and leave it pink inside. Its chile butter sauce bathes the lean cut in some much-needed fat. The meat is flanked by black beans and grilled zucchini, not more starch, so you won't feel so guilty about ordering that second basket of chips.

When you need comfort food, the obvious choice is "Mama's Stacked Enchiladas." The soft, gooey mess (I mean that in the nicest possible way) consists of layers of flour tortillas, shredded chicken, and cheeses surrounded by a lake of rose-colored sauce.

Fajitas come in three flavors, chicken, shrimp or beef, or you can combine all three. At $12.50, they are a good deal, with grilled onions and red peppers, rice and refried beans. I'd like them even better with guacamole and sour cream.

Mex's kitchen is weakest when it comes to seafood. The shrimp in the shrimp appetizer are impressively large, but they and a slice of avocado swim in enough tomato sauce to qualify as a bowl of soup. The red snapper in a Veracruzana sauce is fresh and flavorful, but unfortunately chewy. Its tomato, olive and caper sauce could hide any number of flaws, but not that.

Save room for dessert. There was one I fell hard for, the hot, soft churros rolled in cinnamon sugar. The doughnut-like sweet was raised to a whole other level of indulgence by being served with a creamy chocolate sauce. Others at the table went for the fried ice cream in chocolate sauce. The modest rice pudding with raisins was pretty much ignored.

What colored our experience at Mex as much as anything was the good service. Again, because Mex is a bar, my expectations weren't particularly high; and maybe we just happened to be there on the right night, when things were slow (a weeknight when it was raining). But the staff are not only likable, they actually know what they're doing. The food arrived right on time and without a lot of extraneous chitchat.

Two-for-one margaritas and Mexican beer at happy hour, freshly made guacamole, Tex-Mex favorites and churros in chocolate sauce. If this place isn't on your list of summer's guilty pleasures yet, it should be.

elizabeth.large@baltsun.com

MEX

Address: 26 Market Place at Power Plant Live

Hours: Open every day for lunch and dinner

Prices: Appetizers, $6.75; main courses, $12.50-$13.

Call: 410-528-0128

FOOD *** (3 stars)

SERVICE *** (3 stars)

ATMOSPHERE *** (3 stars)

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

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