Zen West is a distant cousin of nearby Cafe Zen

January 04, 2007|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,special to the sun

Talented siblings Po and Jo Chang have opened a new venture alongside their popular 10-year-old Chinese restaurant, Cafe Zen. This time, they've looked to the American West instead of the global East to create a Tex-Mex comfort food hang-out called Zen West.

At first blush, burritos and nachos seem like an odd detour from garlic shrimp and Hunan pork, but the Changs have pulled it off, though there's still room for improvement.

Their new restaurant, overlooking Belvedere Square in the former home of Gator's Pub, opened in September and mixes "yeehaw" and "om" with ease.

Before you even get your menus, you'll see how the Zen and the West work together. A basket of warm chips and salsa magically appear (the Zen part), but the salsa is hotter than an Arizona blacktop at noon (the West part). The fresh, smoky flavor is almost, but not quite, overpowered by pepper-induced sizzle, and would have been better if it had been kicked down just one notch.

The decor is pure '50s cornball, with cowboys and "Route 66" markers painted on the walls. All that energy, though, doesn't dispel the warehouse-like coldness of the space. Maybe the restaurant is just too large to be cozy.

Zen West offers an appealing menu of typical Tex-Mex dishes, mostly with clever names and nice little twists that make them fresher and livelier than at many establishments. A quesadilla comes stuffed with crab and corn ($9.95) instead of the more obvious chicken and cheese (though you can get that, too), and nachos sport chunks of marinated Portobello mushrooms and other veggies ($7.95) instead of the bleak glop of ground beef offered at so many taco joints.

Both of these appetizers were generously sized and tasty, but - starting to see a pattern here? - they could have been better. The Skinny Chef nachos, as they are called, needed more of those delicious mushrooms, and the quesadilla needed less cheese, so as to not weigh down the delicate flavors of the corn and crab.

Everything looked pretty, though, topped with curls of shredded lettuce, diced tomato and dollops of sour cream and guacamole.

The honchos behind Zen West must know that presentation can go a long way toward teasing out that inner Zen peace, but good service goes even farther. Our waitress combined the perfect - and hard to find - blend of being there when we needed her (West), and making it look easy (Zen). I especially liked her beer recommendation. The Negro Modelo was robust but not bitter, just as she promised.

One of the best main courses is the mahi-mahi taco ($10.95), which combines fingers of grilled and blackened fish with a tangy slaw and a host of flavorful extras, including rice and beans, that sizzling salsa and a scoop of sour cream.

It was much better than the carnitas rancheros ($13.95), a rather bland and dry pile of shredded pork. I found myself eating the smoky refried beans that came with it and leaving the meat on the plate.

Better options include the generously stuffed chicken burrito ($8.95) and a fat, delicately charred burger ($7.95).

Desserts are limited to cheesecake, a pie of the day and a mint brownie sundae. We got the sundae and a slice of apple pie. The pie was fine, but the sundae lacked whipped cream, hot fudge and a cherry. The additional ingredients would have elevated the gooey, still-warm brownie and bracing mint ice cream from good enough to Zen-sational.

Zen West

Where: 5916 York Road

Call: 410-323-3368

Open: Lunch and dinner daily, plus brunch on Saturdays and Sundays

Credit cards: All major

Prices: Appetizers $3.25-$9.95, entrees $7.50-$20.95

Food: *** (3 STARS)

Service: *** 1/2 (3 1.2 STARS)

Atmosphere: *** (3 STARS)

[Outstanding: **** (4STARS), Good: *** (3 STARS) Fair or uneven:

** (2 STARS) Poor: * (1 STAR)

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