Tex Mex, comfort fare at Zen West

TABLE TALK

September 27, 2006|By SLOANE BROWN

The owners of the popular York Road eatery Cafe Zen are bringing what they hope will quickly become another favorite hangout to the neighborhood. They plan to open Zen West this week in the space that used to be Gator's.

Restaurant consultant Spike Owen says he was brought in by the brother-and-sister team of Po and Jo Chang to help create their spin on the roadside diners they grew up with in Texas.

Owen says he and the Changs have spent the past year gutting the place and giving it a whole new look.

Now, when you enter Zen West, you'll find a dining room -- seating about 75 -- to the left. In a salute to the American roadhouse, Owen says they had a muralist paint advertising icons from the 1950s over many of the walls.

A long banquette runs the length of one wall, while tables handmade by Po Chang sport more painted advertising logos, as well as traditional Southwestern symbols. The floors are Brazilian cherry wood and tile.

If you hang a right from the foyer, you'll find the bar area, featuring a 22-seat concrete-topped bar. Owen says the front of the bar looks like it's made of leather, but it's actually rusted steel coated in polyurethane.

"Po and I learned to weld, so we went crazy on some ironwork," says Owen. And you'll see the fruits of their labors on the back bar. Several high-top tables bring total seating in the area to about 40.

And then there's the decor. One wall is adorned with old pinball machine covers, complete with lights. Another wall in the bar may well become a destination in itself. Owen says it's a huge scene of horses running on a vista, painted by one of Baltimore's most famous artists -- who just happens to be a Cafe Zen regular -- Raoul Middleman.

Owen describes the menu as a combination of traditional Tex Mex and American comfort foods.

You'll find appetizers like chili con queso ($3.25-$4.25); crab-and-roasted-corn quesadilla ($9.95); and fried calamari ($8.95). There are also homemade tamales, with the fillings changing every couple of weeks. Right now, you'll find them stuffed with chicken and green chili ($5.95).

The soup section is worth mentioning because you have your choice of east Texas chili ($3.95 cup/$4.95 bowl) or tortilla soup ($4.95).

The Tex Mex menu offers tacos filled with your choice of grilled chicken, grilled beef, grilled shrimp, beans and cheese, or fish ($7.25-$10.95); enchiladas ($8.50-$9.95); burritos ($7.95-$9.95) or fajitas -- beef, chicken, portobello and veggies, shrimp, or beef and chicken ($12.95-$16.95).

Other entrees include the roadside-diner staple of chicken-fried steak ($14.95); dry-rubbed New York strip ($21.95); grilled shrimp skewers and chorizo cheese grits ($17.95); and the catch of the day (market price).

There are also several burger and sandwich choices, including barbecue carnitas sandwich ($7.50); fried chicken sandwich ($8.95) and, yes, a Maryland crab-cake sandwich (market price).

Zen West, 410-323-3368, is at 5916 York Road. Its hours are scheduled to be 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday. The bar will stay open later.

The entire restaurant and bar are nonsmoking and seating is on a first-come, first-serve basis. Reservations will be taken only for parties of eight or more.

A new Phillips

Speaking of roadside eateries, if you're traveling up Interstate 95, you may have noticed an old friend along the way. Phillips Famous Seafood Express quietly opened in the Maryland House Travel Plaza at the beginning of the summer, but just celebrated its grand opening.

Spokesman Todd Yuhanick says this Phillips is similar to the ones you'll find in airports. The food is quick-to-go, like crab cake platters and sandwiches, crab pretzels and fried shrimp.

If you have information regarding a local restaurant's opening, closing or major changes, please e-mail that information to sloane@sloanebrown.com or fax it to 410-675-3451.

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