No Way Jose Café Still Dishes Out Reliable, Old-School Mexican Fare
Mexican: the cuisine that Atkins left behind. Basketsful of complimentary chips, everything wrapped in tortillas, or else served over rice and corn bread, it's the attack of the carbohydrates, and we're very afraid. But we love it, all of that denseness, the expanse of the food across wide oval platters And the margaritas. And burp, excuse me.
There was a time, not too long ago, when Mexican food--good or bad--was rarer than hen's teeth around here. Then a few traditional Mexican-American restaurants--nothing fancy, no Baja leanings--emerged on the scene, gathered their loyal clienteles, and waltzed into the 21st century with their chimichangas intact. Among these first-wave restaurants was Federal Hill's No Way Jose Café.
You enter No Way Jose through a long, narrow bar up front, packed on a Thursday night with neighborhood singles. Wedged in the back is a cozy, borderline-cramped dining room, outfitted with a half-dozen high-backed wooden booths and a few other scattered tables. The room has good energy; it reminded us of a popular college hangout or a bustling beach joint.
Our server brought salsa and chips to our table within minutes of being seated. And here I'll pause to sing the praises of our server, who, among other things, refreshed the chips without being asked, cleared away drink glasses when they were empty, and managed to show a concern for our table's needs without ever being obtrusive. Someone should stage a parade in her honor.
The chips were crispy and pleasantly oily, and the salsa was truly very good, fresh-tasting, a little peppery, and not suffering from cilantro overkill. (The revelation that I couldn't stop eating them means absolutely nothing, but neither could my companions, who are capable of more restraint.)
No Way Jose lists about a dozen or so standard appetizers and salads. Chili con queso ($5.50) tempted us, and I was a little curious about the "Hot Hot Hot Habanero style" Mexi-wings ($5.95), but our table settled on a whole-wheat quesadilla stuffed with chorizo ($7.75), tomatillo salsa, and cheese. This turned out to be a great and promising choice. Delivered hot, the quesadilla was adroitly assembled, with no ingredients overwhelming the others. Especially tasty was the homemade tomatillo salsa, which added a pleasant and different texture to the taste. We paid to add on some sour cream ($1.35) and unmemorable guacamole ($2.75)--literally, I don't remember it--neither of which proved necessary.
Other than two barbecue selections--pork ribs ($10 half rack/$15.75 full rack) and a shredded pork platter ($10)--the entrée menu consists entirely of that all-star Mexican cuisine lineup: tacos, burritos, enchiladas, chimichangas, and fajitas. The two tortilla-less Mexican entrées are Texas chili, served over jalapeño corn bread ($9) and a dish the menu calls simply "chipotle." This last one we tried, adding shrimp ($12.95)--instead of chicken ($11.55)--to a mix of onions and peppers sautéed with a creamy chipotle sauce and served over rice. This wasn't a bad dish--the ingredients appeared fresh and vivid--but it wasn't exactly compelling either. Twelve or so bland-tasting shrimp encircled the platter--they didn't seem to have absorbed any chipotle flavor. The cream sauce itself didn't have us fighting for tastes--you kind of got the idea after one mouthful.
The generously portioned red enchilada ($11.95) arrived in a baking dish. The menu indicated beef braised in red wine (hence, "red enchilada") and spices, and a topping of ancho chili sauce, but these flavors got lost in the mix, a case of the whole amounting to less than the sum of its parts. Another near miss, and, admittedly, subtlety might be the wrong thing to go searching for in an enchilada dish.
Better, and recommended, were the Texas burrito ($10.95), which included among the onions, peppers, and cheese a generous heaping of grilled flank steak; and a soft taco filled with chicken ($5.50, a satisfying bargain) and topped with cheese, lettuce, and tomato. Well-treated and faultless. The burrito and taco were accompanied by serviceable and familiarly gloppy piles of black beans, pinto beans, and rice.
Best of all was the last-second addition of a hard taco basket ($4.75), shared by the table. Crispy corn tortillas stuffed with tasty ground beef, lettuce, tomato, and shredded cheese, they were about the best and brightest tacos any of us have come across in a long, long while.
No Way Jose isn't striving to reinvent or re-imagine Mexican cuisine, but there will probably always be a demand for reliable, old-style restaurants like this.
Old school: email@example.com.