Dine with the Devil
A Latin fusion restaurant shows more flair in its drinks than its dishes
Diablita, a painted she-devil all curves and shadows, beckons from the south wall of the old Tack Factory building. She draws you inside her namesake, Diablita (1300 Bank St.,  522-0012, diablitacantina.com), plies you with liquor and smiles from a friendly staff before you stumble back out onto the darkness of Central Avenue with your wallet lighter and your belly full of fried foods.
Like many seductions, an evening at Diablita starts out exciting, but in the end leaves you just shy of being satisfied. On Thursdays, the night of our visit, margaritas are $5, and the urge to try one of the inventive concoctions (spicy cucumber, anyone?) is irresistible. A red chile/guava version served in an old fashioned glass seduces with dusky tequila, a subtle tinge of sweetness, and some underlying heat, thought at its normal price of $9.50, the modestly sized cocktail would be less palatable.
Yet alcohol and drink specials are a heavy draw at Diablita where an entire menu side is devoted to beverages (most of them alcoholic), and the "plato del dia" list features reduced-price signature cocktails, beers, and pitchers of sangria, rather than food. There's also a potent happy hour from 4 to 7 p.m. Mondays through Fridays. This is good marketing when you're trying to draw customers from Harbor East's abundant restaurants to an area, albeit nearby, that boasts only two (Diablita shares a building with Lemongrass). And it's also smart to have a built-in draw when authentic Latin American food is so close in Fells Point.
Like the building's former tenant, Tsunami, Diablita brings a fusion approach to ethnic fare. It's broadly Mexican with a little Tex and a little Caribbean thrown in the mix, so that green chile sauce shares a menu with huitlacoche, tropical fruit, jalapeño coconut rice, and lots of sweet potatoes. Some things are terrific, like a tartly pickled red onion escabeche that accompanies pulled-pork empanadas ($9), or the dice of sweet potatoes spiked with aromatic fennel and chili that comes with several dishes. But these sides and garnishes often have more life than the main focal point of the plates.
Take, for example, those empanadas and the cigar-shaped flautas ($8). The pulled pork of the former and the shredded chicken in the latter were dry and unremarkable, but if forced to choose between the two, I'd take the flautas, for their side of sweet potatoes and a serving of tasty sautéed plantains, underripe and savory. A trio of guacamoles, too, were simply ordinary, even with the unnecessary addition of tropical fruit to one of three renditions ($10--the other versions are a smooth "traditional" and a "chunky," in which some avocado is allowed to remain in pieces), but the basket of mixed chips, including tortilla, yucca, and plantain, surprised with diversity and made for compulsive nibbling.
During our visit, inconsistencies in the appetizers extended to some of the entrées as well. The kitchen was out of chicken mole, we were told when we tried to order it. Perhaps this is why two tamales, one red chile pork, one green chile chicken ($4 each,) came without their promised cloak of mole sauce, though it doesn't explain why both came with a side of red chile sauce. When the requested green sauce--lively, slightly acidic, and bracingly fresh--arrived, it still couldn't correct the dryness of the crumbly tamale or help us identify which masa-enclosed package was chicken and which was pork.
Some folks balk at the fuss of making and assembling their own fajitas at the table, but at Diablita, the components of adobo pork fajitas ($12) arrived fully cooked in neat little mounds on a rectangular white plate. No hot plate or sizzle in sight, they were a repeat of appetizers--some dry pork, cubed sweet potatoes, and more plantains--making the mild chile/peanut chicken tacos ($10) seem dynamic in comparison (again, an escabeche preparation, this time cucumber, gave the dish some much needed zing). A plump short rib burrito ($13) provided the most satisfaction, with the sweet/savory, mildly spicy heat of jalapeño coconut rice and a tangle of braised red cabbage giving visual and gustatory contrast to the rich meat.
With its exposed brick and beams, deep booths, and youthful but cheerful service, Diablita offers a cozy, comfortable spot for the happy-hour crowd. But if you are unhappy, fear not; this is also a sympathetic place to drown your sorrows as the colorful painted panels above the booths testify to the soothing powers of las bebidas via the Mexican saying: "Para el cruel destino, vino; Para el fracaso, de tequila un vaso; Para la tristeza, cerveza; Para todo mal, mescal" (For cruel fate, wine; for failure, a glass of tequila; for sadness, beer; for everything bad, mescal.) Cheers.