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Spicy small plates charm at a Mexican eatery

Sam Holden

Miguel's Cocina y Cantina

Address:1200 Steuart St.
Baltimore, MD 21230

More on Miguel's Cocina y Cantina.

By Mary K. Zajac | Posted 4/21/2010

A small, turquoise fire-breathing dragon perches on the host stand at Miguel's Cocina y Cantina. Take this as no mere coincidence, no playful folk art greeting. Rather recognize this dragon as a harbinger of what will follow on your plate: spicy, colorful food that nods to authentic Mexican fare with a few whimsical touches.

While not everything works at Michael Marx's third restaurant venture (after Rub and Blue Agave *), Miguel's menu is large enough that you can work your way around the missteps fairly easily. And few dining rooms in Baltimore offer this particular vantage point of the city. A window-side table at the Silo Point restaurant tests your geography of East Baltimore, but even a novice can pick out the Natty Boh sign and the First Mariner building in the skyline. CSX trains roll by silently, and as night falls, the silhouettes of industrial buildings and cargo ships just beyond Miguel's patio soften in the purple twilight.

Inside Miguel's, however, all is unapologetically bright. One side of the dining room suggests a Disney-esque rendering of an outdoor plaza, while the other is oddly reminiscent of a concession stand in a sports arena: blue and gray walls plastered with Mexican beer logos. It's a noisy spot, but it gives the impression of liveliness rather than din, though this is not the restaurant to frequent if you and your partner need a good heart-to-heart. If you want to celebrate a birthday with margaritas, pitchers of beer, and a bevy of tacos, quesadillas, and empanadas like the table next to us did, Miguel's is your spot.

Eating here with a large group is also the best way to sample the menu, where entrées outnumber small plates, margarita choices (including a vibrant magenta-colored prickly pear version for $7.50) run into double digits, and beer comes any number of ways, including spiced up as a michelada ($5). Dressing up Tecate in Worcestershire sauce, lime, black pepper, and a good dose of chile de arbol powder isn't for everyone, but the result is tingly and refreshing. Tecate never tasted so good.

Small plates proliferate at Miguel's, and despite their designation, are sizeable and offer a broad variety of choices. Taco fillings include chorizo and roasted pork; flautas offer roasted mushrooms and shredded lamb; and empanadas come stuffed with grilled apple and fennel, shrimp and jicama, or grilled Mexican squash. Add to that warm cactus salad, posole Sinaloa, or mariscos veracruzana (seafood in a jalapeño-tomato sauce), and it's easy to be overwhelmed. But don't be.

Instead, dig into baja tacos ($7), three soft tacos brimming with grilled white fish, pickled cabbage, and some violet-colored marinated carrots. Topped with a mossy green tomatillo salsa, the dish is a bright study in contrasting textures and colors, adding crunch and tart heat to mildly sweet fish. While the tomatillo salsa's heat boasts up-front acidity, the mole poblano covering the puebla flautas ($6) does just the opposite. Its smoky, rich heat sneaks up on you, hiding behind a burst of sweet chocolate before settling in for the kill. Flautas can often disappoint by being overcooked and tasteless, a brittle cigar of tortilla and meat with little flair, but here the chicken remains moist, the tortilla shell pleasantly crunchy. Picadillo empanadas ($6.50), filled with a combination of beef and pork, please in a way only good pastry can. If the walnut, clove, and dried cranberry part of the filling is overwhelmed by the mole chatino, a slow burn redolent of roasted tomato, so be it.

Each of these plates is ample enough to make ordering from the platos fuertes portion of the menu nearly redundant, an observation compounded by the fact that the entrées we tried showed neither the nuance nor the diversity of flavors of the small plates.

Messes can be good and bad and Miguel's el tri burrito ($13) falls somewhere in between. It's big: bigger than a Chihuahua , bigger than Boog Powell's fist around a baseball on Opening Day. It's stuffed with chicken, skirt steak, and pork, topped with chile rojo, lime crema, and mole verde, and I took at least three-quarters of it home with me and weighed it on a kitchen scale where it came in at a pound and three quarters. It's more fun to talk about than eat. Enchiladas de pollo ($14) are a better option, not so much for the slightly dry chunks of chicken in the brilliantly red tortillas, but for the dusky, dark sauté of cactus and accompanying black beans.

According to the menu, carnitas Juvencio ($16) are named for the person who showed Marx how to marinate the slow roasted chunks of pork in Coca-Cola. Although Coke (and root beer) are no stranger to ham in many Southern kitchens, the result here is a whole lot of sweetness that isn't much tempered by the addition of the garnishes you use to wrap up the meat into tacos. The refried beans, however, are a revelation. Whipped as light as cream, you'll wish the portion was double.

A desert plate of two chocolate mint cookies, a lone marshmallow, and glass of horchata ($6) underwhelmed and seemed puny compared to the giant entrées, but you don't really need more food at this point anyway.

Service at Miguel's was friendly and remarkably patient for a busy night. When we apologized for asking so many questions about the menu, our server graciously responded, "That's why I'm here." But the restaurant still seemed understaffed, which could be an issue when the patio opens and the sun goes down.

Open daily for lunch and dinner.

*Correction: The original article incorrectly referred to "the late Blue Agave"; Blue Agave is still open, though Michael Marx is no longer an owner. City Paper regrets the error.

How much bigger than a Chihuahua was that burrito?

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