Federico Lopez is proud of the food of his hometown. That town, Mexico City, should be proud of him, too.
With his wife, Maria, Lopez owns Fiesta Mexicana, a tiny, friendly Rosedale restaurant dedicated to cooking authentic Mexico City cuisine. As the capital of Mexico and the country's largest city, Mexico City draws culinary inspiration from the entire country.
The resulting cuisine feels familiar to the American palate, but fresh. Diners will recognize the tortilla-plus-meat-and-sauce concoctions on their plates; it looks similar to the food at any run-of-the-mill Mexican place in America.
But the food at Fiesta Mexicana is anything but average.
Appetizers We started with chips and a bowl of guacamole ($4.25). The chips, though salty and crisp, were standard. But the guacamole — pale green and chunky, with just enough salt and spice — was something special.
Another chip-and-dip appetizer ($5.25), called el nido ("the nest"), was billed as "everyday food in Mexico." The people of Mexico are lucky to eat el nido every day.
The mixture of refried beans and chorizo wasn't especially attractive — it was a long, shallow bowl of dark brown mush. But looks can be deceiving; the flavor was fantastic. The dip was warm, meaty and slightly spicy. The chorizo lead the way on flavor, while the beans gave the dip substantial heft. We made quick work of it.
Entrees The pambazo ($7.95), a traditional Mexican sandwich of chorizo and potatoes, is a rare find on menus in America; we wish it was available everywhere. The filling of spicy chorizo and soft potatoes was hearty and savory. Shredded lettuce, crema and a crumble of queso fresco added crunch and tang.
We enjoyed the filling, but the real star of the pambazo was the bread. A sauce made with red guajillo peppers, swabbed on top of a white roll, added savory pepper flavor to the chewy crust. We'd buy those rolls by the dozen.
The paquet sampler ($16.50) gave us a quick glimpse at most of the rest of the menu. The sampler included two enchiladas bathed in spicy green sauce, one quesadilla, one crispy flauta, one taco and one sope (a thick tortilla with pinched sides, filled with meat and vegetables).
Like most Mexican restaurants, diners at Fiesta Mexicana can choose from a variety of fillings, including chicken (spicy or regular), beef, chorizo and vegetables. Combinations like chorizo and potatoes are also available, and additional toppings include beans, queso fresco, crema and lettuce.
For the paquet, we left ourselves in the capable hands of Federico Lopez, allowing him to choose our fillings and toppings. The result was a spectacular array of savory and spicy fillings, which blended into one another as we ate.
Our favorite was a salty, spicy taco of chorizo and onion, sprinkled with cilantro and a squeeze of lime.
Scene Fiesta Mexicana is small, with just a handful of booths and tables circling an open kitchen. The space is the opposite of fancy: the decor runs to cardboard boxes of Mexican candy and bags of chips for sale.
But the attention was personal. The restaurant's cozy size and small staff meant that Federico Lopez personally waited on every customer.
Service Throughout our meal, Lopez checked in periodically, explaining the dishes and helping us open beers and sodas (Fiesta Mexicana is BYOB, with no corkage fee, and the restaurant has an impressive selection of Mexican sodas). The restaurant was busy while we were there, both with other diners and carry-out orders. Lopez was accessible, though, and available whenever we needed him.
We did have to take matters into our own hands when it was time for dessert, however. We were picking at the last of our dinners and chatting over drinks; Lopez seemed content to let us sit at our table as long as we wanted. But we were ready for something sweet.
Dessert Fiesta Mexicano's desserts are made in-house; they sit, individually-wrapped, in a glass case next to the cash register. We hopped out of our booth and walked to the counter, asking for a slice of tres leches cake and a helping of flan ($3.50 each).
Lopez plated the desserts — generous servings of both — and brought them to our table. The cake was sweet and moist and light, despite its soaking in condensed milk.
The flan, on the other hand, was dense, eggy and dark. The two desserts couldn't have been more different, but both were excellent. We couldn't pick a favorite.
Bottom line During dinner, we realized that most of the other customers were regulars. That's no surprise: between Lopez's sparkling personality and the kitchen's skill, Fiesta Mexicana should be packed every night of the week.
Backstory: Federico and Maria Lopez opened Fiesta Mexicana in Rosedale in 2007. Since then, they've been serving the authentic food of their hometown, Mexico City, in a low-key, friendly atmosphere.
Parking: Lot in front
Signature dish: The paquet sampler includes a cross-section of Fiesta Mexicana's dishes: enchiladas, quesadillas, tacos, flautas and sopes. Let the kitchen pick the fillings for a variety of savory and spicy flavors, topped by fresh vegetables, queso fresco and crema.
Where: 8304 Philadelphia Road, Rosedale, MD 21237
Open: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily
Credit Cards: All major
Rating: 3 stars
Reservations: Not accepted, but calls to check seat availability are welcome
[Key: Superlative: 5 stars; Excellent: 4 stars; Very Good: 3 stars; Good: 2 stars; Promising: 1 star]