Upper Fells bar tour is the real deal

The neighborhood pubs around Broadway offer an authentic Latin flavor

May 27, 2010|By Sam Sessa, The Baltimore Sun

For years, Upper Fells Point has been home to a flourishing Latin American scene, with plenty of shops, restaurants and bars.

Aside from a few tourist haunts such as Arcos, many of the neighborhood's bars have remained under the radar. That's why, a few weeks ago, several friends and I decided to hit a handful of Latin bars, all within walking distance of each other on or near Broadway. We were going where few outsiders had gone before. Our Latin bar tour showed us a crazy corner of Baltimore's nightlife scene, from servers who barely spoke English to patrons who loved pouring salt into bottled beers.

Our first stop was Rumba, at East Pratt Street and South Broadway. There's no missing Rumba from the street. Its exterior is painted an odd mixture of tan and gold, broken up by a couple of patches of block windows, and the upper windows are plastered with fliers for drink specials. Rumba was dark inside, but it didn't take us long to notice the racy photos of women on the walls.

We strode up to the center of the nearly empty bar and grabbed a few stools. Ordering a drink at Rumba was tricky because of the language barrier. Most of the bartenders we met that night spoke only Spanish, and we spoke only English, which made ordering anything besides beer impossible. I asked her if there were any specials and got a blank stare. I spotted a blender behind the bar, pointed to it and asked whether they did margaritas or other mixed drinks. Another blank stare, followed by a stream of what I assumed was Spanish. Frustrated, I broke down and ordered a bottle of Negro Modello ($3), which was served with a lime wedge jammed halfway down the top of the bottle.

Also of note: The outer men's room door had a large window in the middle of it. If you were curious about what was happening inside, there was no need to open the door; you could just peer through the glass. How convenient! The men's room also had one of Baltimore's most ornate urinals, with blue, green and tan tiles and patterns of birds and flowers. Beautiful yet impractical — to flush the urinal, I had to open and close a manual spigot. Stay classy, Rumba.

Our second stop was Arizona, a bar at South Broadway and East Lombard Street. From the moment we set foot in that place, we knew it was going to be a party. There was a strobe light in the foyer and more colorful flashing lights inside. Just like an Irish bar, Arizona's ceiling was covered in colorful flags, and a ton of random memorabilia, such as an inflatable snow globe and a pair of badminton rackets, hung on the walls.

To avoid another drink-ordering impasse, I asked for more Negro Modellos ($3). Since there were four or five servers behind the bar, I got my suds in no time. I didn't see a man behind the bar at any of the places we visited — the servers were always women, and typically there were at least three people operating each bar.

To say Arizona's DJ mixed it up would be the understatement of the night. He slammed together hip-hop tracks from Jay-Z and south-of-the-border oom-pah jams (complete with accordions), and the crowd rarely missed a beat, nodding their heads or getting up and dancing. The DJ must have had some cheesy sound- effects buttons on his mixer, because every 20 or 30 seconds, an air horn would sound. I couldn't stop laughing.

After finishing our second round of Negro Modellos, we left Arizona and wound up at Palomino Mexican Restaurante & Bar, at Eastern Avenue and South Regester Street. Palomino was the brightest of all three bars, bathed in sickly fluorescent light. It reminded me of an office, except people were shooting pool and drinking beers instead of sitting at desks.

Again, there were at least three female bartenders, making sure everyone had a fresh bottle of beer in front of them. Most of the folks at all three places were drinking beer, and a bunch were also dumping salt in their bottles. When people ordered a beer, they would poke the lime wedge down into the bottle, pick up a salt shaker and season their beverage. I've never seen anything like it before. My mouth puckered at the thought. I knew I had to try it, though — when in Rome and all.

I ordered a Corona, gave the salt shaker a few hearty shakes above my beer (getting as much on the bar as in the suds) and took a swig. It tasted OK — like salty beer. I wasn't sold on it. In fact, it vaguely reminded me of those heinous Bud Light & Clamato Cheladas.

I downed my salty beer and led my buddies back to Arizona, our favorite bar on the tour, for a nightcap. Though plenty of folks shot us "what-are-they-doing-here" looks when we first walked into each bar, by the time we left, we'd struck up conversations and made new friends. What more can you ask of any bar but to feel welcome?

sam.sessa@baltsun.com

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