The dual restaurant space at 1300 Bank St. near Little Italy always struck me as odd. When it opened, it had a Thai restaurant, Lemongrass, and a pan-Asian restaurant, Tsunami, so close together that they shared a kitchen. Lemongrass took off, but its sister restaurant didn't - probably because it was perceived as simply a more expensive version of the first place.
The new owners of the restaurants (who also own Red Star in Fells Point) have taken a different approach. They have turned the pan-Asian restaurant into Diablita Cantina, a casual Mexican place that's a step up from the usual tacos-and-fajitas factory.
After major renovations, the dining room is now basically the bar, with a private dining area in back. It's attractive in a bare-bones, understated way, with a lot of barn wood and bare brick. The seating is mostly booths running along two walls, with a long bar as the focal point of the room. Nothing much about it says Mexican, or even Tex-Mex, and that's probably a good thing.
It looks like a place where people in their 20s gather to drink margaritas and eat nachos, which is certainly true. But the executive chef is Russell Braitsch, formerly involved with the now-closed Gardel's, as well as Salt, Corks, Red Star and Noah's on the Side in Ellicott City. He's turning out food that's a bit more ambitious than burritos, although when I talked to him over the phone, he described Diablita as "an upscale burrito joint."
The modest ambitions are illustrated in various ways. The fried calamari, for instance, is described on the menu as "crisp chipotle-encrusted calamari with cilantro pesto."
We didn't try it because we were focused on the pulled pork empanadas. Diablita's version is made with flaky layers of puff pastry, a variation on the traditional that I can't complain about because, well, it's puff pastry. What's not to like?
Our waiter guided us to the Tequila-Infused Queso Fundo, a hot, cheesy dip studded with diced peppers, tomato and onion. With a healthy jolt of tequila in it, it was vaguely reminiscent of Welsh rabbit, only with tortilla chips for dipping instead of bread. Good for sharing; not so good for us since we were ordering other appetizers.
You might be tempted by the trio of guacamoles, but I did the advance legwork for you on this one, and take my advice: The chunky, with big, soft pieces of ripe avocado, is far superior to the traditional (smooth) or the Tropical Fruit. Well-made guacamole is so good it doesn't need the addition of mangoes and such. The guacamole comes with a great assortment of chips, including plantain, yucca and malanga (a starchy tuber).
Diablita has a good, but not great, tortilla soup. It's filled with all sorts of things - chicken, roasted corn, goat cheese, tomatillos. My feeling is that the greatest tortilla soups don't need anything extra in them but avocado.
All the usual Mexican choices are available at Diablita - although they might be offered with unusual ingredients, like the bison burritos. Now I know what upscale burritos are: You serve them with black beans and yellow rice, sweet potatoes and roasted peppers, and offer unexpected fillings such as mushroom. I wasn't sorry my friend ordered the bison burrito for its novelty value, but it was dry, as bison so often is.
I wonder how many customers go beyond the burritos and fajitas to order, say, Pescado Veracruzano, red snapper over polenta with tomatoes, bell peppers, olives and capers. It's respectable without being particularly memorable. More interesting to me was the grilled shrimp paired with the flank steak, which arrived in quite rare slices under a dark, fruity sauce. Spinach and mashed calabaza squash rounded out the plate.
For every one of the entradas, the place must sell 10 fajita platters, which you can get with pork and sweet potatoes, flank steak or shrimp. I presume these last two are the same as were on the combination plate.
We tried the tequila-lime chicken breast, which came with sauteed pepper and onions. If I had been ordering for myself, I might have been a little more adventuresome, although it's hard to imagine making a fajita of flank steak, asparagus and mushrooms.
Consider Diablita next time you want a place to stop for coffee and dessert. The most ambitious dessert we tried, and also the least successful, was the Banana Trio: a small banana cream pie (not a favorite of mine under the best of circumstances), banana flautas and banana ice cream.
If that sounds like too much for you, get the good tres leche cake, but ask them to hold the thawed berries. They add nothing.
Best of all the desserts are the hot, just-fried churros loaded with cinnamon sugar. They are irresistible. Their caramel dulce de leche dipping sauce is even better than the traditional chocolate. And Diablita serves good, freshly brewed coffee.
Diablita, of course, has all sorts of tequilas, beers and sangria. The wine list is short, but the margarita list is long. The classic margarita is excellent, but even better is the Spicy Cucumber. The cucumber puree adds a refreshing note to the drink. Have a couple of those and an order of guacamole, and you'll be set for the evening.
Diablita Cantina Where:
300 Bank St.
Contact: 410-522-0012, DiablitaCantina.com
Hours: open daily for lunch and dinner, brunch Sunday
Food: ** 1/2
Atmosphere: ** 1/2
[Outstanding: **** Good: *** Fair or uneven: ** Poor: *]