Mix Of Food, Music, Fun

August 27, 2009|By Richard Gorelick | Richard Gorelick,Special to The Baltimore Sun

When it first opened back in 2006, I visited and enjoyed myself at Carlos O'Charlies. I remember being impressed first of all with how big the place was: two floors of shifting environments, several bars and multiple dining areas.

Downstairs, there was a dance floor and a few pool tables; upstairs, more formal dining spaces; and in the center, a stone fountain. It didn't all make perfect sense, and it was hard to imagine its ever being full of diners, but its flamboyance put a smile on your face.

The menu was all over the place too, divided up into about equal sections of classic American grill food, Southwestern/Californian, and Salvadoran/Mexican offerings.

It was a curious place, and at the time I wondered which of the business' parts would grow and which would shrink (more dining tables or more pool tables?), and which parts of the menu would fly and which wouldn't? I also wondered whether the neighborhood's growing Latino population would embrace Carlos O'Charlies.

Three years later, there are some answers. To take the last question first, Carlos O'Charlies, from all appearances, has developed a predominantly but not exclusively Latino following. A staff member told us as much, adding that the nightclub attracts a comfortable mix of black and Latino customers.

The spaces here look mostly the same, although it's much clearer now that the lower level is intended more for partying and pool-playing than dining. The menu looks about the same, too. The American fare still tends to shrimp scampi and T-bone steaks; the Southwestern listings run to fish tacos and "monster" burritos; and most of the things that you probably will want to try on a first visit are still in the Mexican and Salvadoran section - carne asada, plantains and tamales.

On this recent visit, all of the food - the appetizers and the entrees - came out of the kitchen at the same time. That seemed to be the way here, at least on a Sunday night. Suddenly faced with a feast, you can't keep away from the flautas. They're delicious. An appetizer plate comes with eight deep-fried shells, and really, they are so filling, and the shredded chicken inside them is so tasty, that an order of them might be all you need. Plantains are another good choice. We didn't order them as an appetizer because they came with one of our entrees.

Another appetizer we tried, pastelitos de carne, simply little beef pies with cabbage, was unappetizing, either because they'd been sitting around (they were stale and almost beefless), or because of the sauce poured on top of them that tasted like Russian dressing.

There was something a little tired, too, about a pork chop entr?e, which the menu made sound succulent - "pan-fried in olive oil, onions, and tomato sauce" - but which was just too dry when it was served. It did have nice flavor, though, and its accompanying black beans, rice and plantains were well handled. Not so much the little green salad. The appetizer we had especially been craving, the yuca with chicharr?n (delectable nuggets of fried pork) wasn't available.

The house specialties here are the entr?e soups, one featuring seafood and the other beef. The version with beef is worth checking out. There's not pretense that this is fancy food; it's the kind of one-pot affair that just about everyone's grandmother made out of leftover meat and vegetables and that just about everyone loves. Here, too, the beef and vegetables (cabbage, yuca, carrots) get tender, and the flavors have a roundness and depth that only comes from slow simmering. After the flautas, though, it's unfinishable.

It did feel as if dining wasn't the primary focus at Carlos O'Charlies, if it ever was. Whatever loyalty and patronage it's won from Highlandtown residents probably has more to do with how well it mixes food with music and fun.

Carlos O'Charlies

Where: : 3508 Eastern Ave.

Call: : 410-675-1485

Open: : 10 a.m.-1 a.m. daily

Credit cards: : AMEX, Visa, Master Card

Appetizers: : $2-$9.99

Entrees: : $8.95-$15.95

Food: : ** 1/2 (2 1/2 stars)

Service: : ** (2 stars)

Atmosphere: : ** 1/2 (2 1/2 stars)

[Outstanding: **** Good: ***

Fair or uneven: ** Poor: *]

On the menu

* Flautas - $6.99

* Plantains with crema - $3.95

* Beef pie with marinated cabbage - $2

* Salvadoran pork chop - $10.50

* Beef soup - $8.95

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