What Is It We Like About Nacho Mama's Again?
On a recent steaming hot evening, nothing appealed to the stomach more than Mexican food-a pitcher or two of margaritas, some healthy sweat-production from fresh, peppery, simply composed food. I didn't want to think about food so much as consume it, and a casual, come-as-you-are joint felt ideal. Nacho Mama's (2907 O'Donnell St.,  675-0898) sounded like the answer.
Let's grant Nacho Mama's its institution status-it can take credit for pioneering the Canton boom (it opened in 1994, on Elvis Presley's birthday), making it safe and appealing for other restaurants to situate on what is now a densely packed Elysian field of food and beverage. There's a genuineness to its smoky disrepair, the distressed furniture, and the insane explosion of mostly Baltimore-related memorabilia.
On the other hand, Nacho Mama's suffers some from self-love-not so much inflated self-regard but an intense awareness of how adorable it is: We serve our tortilla chips in a hubcap! And dining there can feel like intruding on an inside joke. There are worse afflictions than a case of the cutes, though, and on a better night, Nacho Mama's lightheartedness can be infectious. It might not have been so off-putting had the food pleased more frequently.
The menu itself is alarmingly big and confusingly laid out on a single-sheet place mat-it's hard to divine a hierarchy and to form a dining approach. A specials sheet compounds the bewilderment-six appetizers, five "wrappitizers," five quesadillas, and seven entrées. It all begins to feel like a diner and makes you doubt Nacho Mama's ability to handle so much. It doesn't: Much of what I tried felt slapdash and less than fresh, as though it's taken for granted that it will be loved.
There's hardly anything less appetizing-or more sabotaging-than an unwarmed flour tortilla and the kitchen sent a pile of them out to accompany a beef fajita platter ($13.50) and used another as the enclosure for its fish taco ($8.75), and each of these dinners had enough problems as it was. The flank steak that arrived sizzling with very nice green peppers and caramelized onions was tough and liverlike, betraying not a touch of marinade or spice. Nor was any notable spicing, something as simple as red pepper flakes, sautéed along with the whole mixture. Nacho Mama's fish taco is certainly idiosyncratic-an intact tuna fillet coated with red pepper and not enough roasted garlic, rather drenched in a bland lime yogurt sauce. It was inert, kind of weird, and not appetizing in the least.
Nacho Mama's enormous quesadillas are weird, too, resembling more a baked savory pie than a freshly grilled tortilla. I have to assume some people like them, but the one our table sampled ($10.95)-filled with tiny flavorless shrimp, tin-can artichoke hearts, diced tomatoes, and runny cheese-was flabby and zestless, yielding very little in the way of junky pleasure. I'm happy to compliment the sweet tomato pan gravy that topped Mama's meat loaf ($11.50), even though the hungry-man loaf itself was too loosely packed and a little crumbly. Sides ranged from the terrific-such as firm, peppery rice-to the negligible, such as syrupy refried beans and smashed potatoes badly wanting some help from the dairy department.
I can sympathize with Nacho Mama's not wanting to tamper with what appears to be a winning formula. I saw lots of happy diners at Nacho Mama's, which is notorious for its long waits on weekends. And, even considering how clumsy our entrées were, no one at our table considered writing it off. I'm encouraged by the low prices, anything-goes barroom atmosphere, the tasty margaritas-$18.75 for a healthy pitcher-and a few aspects of the appetizers: a creamy, toasty, peppery, and altogether winning crab dip ($8.95), crunchy taquitos ($6.50) with soupy insides, a well-displayed chile con queso ($5.50) that unfortunately had a processed-cheese texture.
I'd be more encouraged if someone told me that Nacho Mama's had cut its menu in half, pared back its specials list to a handful of items, and focused its energies on careful and fresh preparations from a manageable menu. And, for the love of God, warm up those tortillas.