It's a brave restaurateur who'll open a Mexican place just a few blocks north of what are probably the two most popular Latino establishments in the area.
The owners of the new Si Salsa in Pomona Square did just that.
They have wisely decided not to compete in the authenticity arena with Mari Luna Mexican Grill and its sister restaurant, Mari Luna Latin Grille. Instead, Si Salsa offers the South of the Border and Tex-Mex specialties everyone loves, like tacos, burritos and fajitas, plus American standards with a Latino accent. Throw in a pomegranate margarita or two and an Angus steak burger, keep entree prices under $20, offer salsa lessons and you've got yourself a winner.
So why isn't every table filled?
For one thing, the restaurant is hard to find if you approach it from the south, tucked away as it is in the back of the Pomona Square complex. The dining room, with its open kitchen and chill air conditioning, is a shade too large to be intimate, with wrap-around windows overlooking a wooded area. The decor is soothing, done in country-neutral furnishings and shades of brown. Take away the strings of red chili pepper lights and the sombreros, and you'd never guess Si Salsa was a Mexican-American restaurant. Soothing is good - I love soothing even with Mexican food - but I may be in the minority here.
More important, the food, which is decent, could be better with very little effort. Dishes that sounded wonderful, like the chicken rajas with fire-roasted poblano and bell peppers in a red pepper coulis, were just OK. The pork chop stuffed with chorizo, corn bread and apples turned out to be startlingly sweet. Fajitas with carne asada were heavy on onions and peppers; not so much on the steak, which was a bit overcooked.
Our waiter told us the kitchen was out of grouper that evening, which meant no fish tacos or potato-crusted grouper with chipotle tomato butter. If we wanted fish, we had to order the paella. It had a nice hunk of mahi mahi on top (so good I'd be tempted to potato-crust the mahi or make the fish tacos with it), but the shrimp and shellfish were overcooked. The clams, in fact, had all migrated from their shells into the depths of the slightly sweet rice.
The side starch, mashed purple potatoes rather than regular ones, was interesting, but resulted in a really ugly dish.
None of this was awful; the food could just have been tweaked a bit and been better than decent.
And then, unexpectedly, some things were very good. The vegetable of the day, white asparagus, arrived hot and tender-crisp. A house-made ranch dressing that came with thinly sliced fried onion "straws" was delicious, and I don't particularly care for ranch dressing. The guacamole featured ripe, soft chunks of avocado and was perfectly seasoned.
As for the soup of the day, shrimp, chorizo and chicken filled the thick, just-spicy-enough Creole soup. (Somehow, Louisiana got in the mix.)
Si Salsa's signature dish, Mexican crab balls, may not have had lump crab meat as promised, but they were so good no one at the table was complaining. The tortilla crust gave the exterior a crunch that contrasted nicely with the soft insides, and they came with a lively jalapeno tartar sauce.
A salad of fried yellow tomato slices stacked with fresh red tomato was a surprising but delightful combination, while the accompanying Boursin and Parrano cheeses may make you rethink the de rigueur-ness of fresh mozzarella.
As for dessert, it's everything in excess at Si Salsa. That night there were three selections. The brownie sundae held no surprises. The apple dumpling had been reheated (in the microwave, I presume) too long. But the fried tortilla-wrapped banana and cheesecake (yes, they were both inside the crisp gold crust) defined guilty pleasure.
The waiter recommended all the entrees we tried, but I think we would have been happier if we stuck to some of the familiar Tex-Mex specialties. The Angus steak burger on a ciabatta roll sounded pretty good as well.
Si Salsa, by the way, is quite kid-friendly, with a children's menu. Now that the weather has gotten nicer, the back patio, which looks out over the woods, is a definite draw. The salsa lessons and dancing on Thursday and Saturday should help as well. But what the place really needs to do, if it's going to compete with the other restaurants in the area, is take a little more care with the food itself.
Address: 1700 Reisterstown Road, Pomona Square, Pikesville
Hours: Open for lunch and dinner daily, Saturday and Sunday brunch
Contact: 410-484-4405, sisalsa.com.
Prices: appetizers: $5.95-$11.95, entrees: $13.95-$23.95
Food: ** ( 2 STARS)
Service: *** (3 STARS)
Atmosphere: ** 1/2 ( 2 1/2 STARS )
[Outstanding: **** Good: *** Fair or uneven: ** Poor: *]