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Omnivore

Still Crazy

The Revamped Loco Hombre Makes a Mad Dash Toward Upscale Latin Fare


Christopher Myers

Loco Hombre

Phone:410-889-2233
Address:413 West Coldspring Lane
Baltimore, MD 21210-

More on Loco Hombre.

By Richard Gorelick | Posted 1/14/2004

What will the old folks say? The restaurant known as Loco Hombre has been extensively renovated, retooled, and restyled. It is still known, unfortunately, as Loco Hombre. The frat-house name no longer fits. What was for years a convivial Roland Park mainstay for consuming mass quantities of (mostly) old-school Mexican-American grub is now an upscale arena for the enjoyment of a chef-driven menu, or what the restaurant itself dubs "Latin-influenced American cuisine."

That's an apt description, for there's no pretending at authenticity here. It's more like a borrowing and reconstruction of distinct native cuisines. But when a chef imagines entrées with paramount concern for what he thinks will please the eye and the tongue--and if the chef's good--diners will usually want to play along, at least for a while. And the new place does look good--less collegiate than before--softer and darker, with more upholstery, more booths, and better lighting,

The new menu, meanwhile, is divided into tapas, platos principales, and an old-school section comprising fajitas, enchiladas, and burritos. Hmmm . . . tapas? I'm not persuaded that Loco Hombre is a setting that would invite making a meal of what they're calling tapas. And if there are nuances of presentation that make one dish an appetizer and another tapas, then I declare the less expensive things that come out on smaller plates at Loco Hombre to be appetizers.

The no-longer-complimentary chips and salsa ($4, but replenished for free) are homemade in pretty primary colors--although they all taste the same--and come with a trio of salsas: a traditional red (too tomatoey), a sweetish salsa verde, and, best of all, a creamy and mildly spicy version with white beans and corn. As is always the case, we couldn't stop eating them. And we all liked the empanadas stuffed with grilled chicken, bacon, and sweet peppers ($8)--the fried casing was greaseless, the filling hot and hearty.

Not much love, though, for the brown sugar-cured flank steak ($9), grilled, skewered, and served with a crispy boniato cake. Actually, we did like the large, flaky cake--a Caribbean version of a potato cake, a cousin to the coddie--but we just couldn't mine any meaning, let alone any intensity, from the steak itself, which was kind of just . . . meat.

The most ambitious--and for us, tempting--appetizer is titled "A Flight of Ceviche"($9), a triple take on the classic preparation of marinated raw fish. Styles of ceviche representing Honduras, Veracruz, and Ecuador are represented by, respectively, yellowfin tuna in a chilled coconut-lime-chile sauce; salmon marinated in lemon juice with capers, olives, and tomatoes; and rock shrimp cooked in lime juice and marinated with orange and achiote. We didn't love them. The freshness and characteristic citrus snap, the raison d'être for ceviche, was mostly absent from these versions. Having said that, they were at least interesting, although sometimes too sweet, and not interesting enough to make us not miss the standard version.

The entrées pleased all around with their balance and their heartiness. Ingredients appeared fresh and high-quality. In a poultry entrée, large pieces of juicy pan-seared chicken breast ($18) were adroitly assembled atop a mound of garlic and buttermilk mashed potatoes, while on the plate's edge a charred tomato mole, bitter and chocolaty, invited dipping and smearing. A mound of dusky and smooth Cuban-style black bean mash underpinned slices of grilled fish in a salmon entrée ($18), all topped with a spicy coconut-lime sauce and served with ripe plantains. Both of these entrées held a complexity of taste and texture that made eating them pleasurable to the last bite.

Admittedly, I've recently had tenderloin ($26) more tender than the seven-ounce version served at Loco Hombre. Compensating mightily, though, were the two pretty red enchiladas filled with wild mushrooms, corn, and sour cream; lovely, silky sautéed spinach; and a red-wine basil sauce that brought it all home.

From the old-school menu came combination fajitas ($16), filled with marinated flank steak and a good number (at least five) of jumbo Gulf shrimp. Mostly worthy and easily recommendable for scaredy-cats, but not really sizzling, though, like the menu says, and the flank steak again felt a little tough.

There was enough promising about the new menu, and its preparation--even on a Sunday--to make us want to come back. The management is actively soliciting diners' comments about its new menu, so whether Loco Hombre keeps moving forward into culinary experimentation or steps back into familiar terrain will tell a lot about this city's tastes and desires. Because, you know, some people are happy as long as the chips and salsa are free.

Que sabrosa: omnivore@citypaper.com.

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