Northeast Tex-Mex Does Trad Well but Could Stand to Get Wilder
For some time now, salsa has been outpacing ketchup as America's favorite condiment, and is it any wonder? So many kinds of salsa, so few kinds of ketchup. This is good news for Mexican restaurants and perhaps helps explain why, on a recent Tuesday evening, Los Amigos (5506 Harford Road,  444-4220) was busier than the Peruvian restaurant that previously occupied this piece of Hamilton real estate ever was.
The décor hasn't changed much, except for colorful ponchos tacked to the walls and a wide-screen television running programs in Spanish. The staff is friendly and warm, if not polished, and it looks like some folks are already regulars. The bar, along one side of the large room, serves imported and domestic brews, wine, mixed drinks, juices and sodas, and a big selection of margaritas. Our table--C.C., myself, our friend Sean, and his new bride, Debi--opted for a carafe of sweet, fruit-filled red sangria ($14) to sip with our complimentary chips and, natch, salsa, this one fresh and fragrant with garlic and cilantro. A side of guacamole dip ($2.50) was also heavy on the cilantro, too much so for Debi, but my complaint was that the guac was watery and thin.
Sean had been eating lightly in the past few days, so he opted for one of the simplest combination dinners, two beef tacos with rice and beans ($6.25). (There are 25 combo dinners in all, ranging in price from $6.25 to $6.75.) The tacos were unadorned save for some cheese and well-seasoned ground beef. (And like too many of its breed, these fell apart in the act of being eaten, with an unhappy outcome for the front of Sean's shirt.) The beans were standard-issue, a smooth, comfortably pleasing paste; the rice, described on the menu as "Spanish," was also plain, without the usual pimento or green pepper. I liked its simplicity, reminiscent of the rice I'd encountered in Mexico, but C.C. found it undersalted. (Well, C.C. finds everything undersalted.)
Debi liked her beef burritos (2 for $5.50), heavy with the well-seasoned ground beef and topped with lots of cheese and a mildly spicy red sauce. C.C.'s fried chimichanga ($7.50, also available in soft form) came just the way she liked it, with lean beef tips, as opposed to ground beef, topped with lettuce, tomato, sour cream, cheese, and the thin guacamole. She dug in with gusto.
I managed to indulge my weakness for chiles rellenos with the chiles poblanos dinner ($7.50), a little twist on the dish. These long, narrow peppers were stuffed with cheese and potato, enclosed in a delicate, delicious egg batter, and lightly fried. They carried a moderate amount of heat, which the rice and beans buffered.
I love ceviche, that uniquely Latin American appetizer of raw fresh seafood marinated in citrus juice, onions, tomato, and chiles. The action of the acid in the juice "cooks" the seafood, firming it up and protecting its pristine flavor. Los Amigos offers two kinds, fish ceviche ($7.95) and mixed ceviche ($8.50); we shared the latter, a combo of sea trout, clams, shrimp, and squid. Seafood-shy Sean demurred; Debi, trying the dish for the first time, loved it. The large serving came with marinated purple onion and a serving of hot sweet-potato purée. The squid and clams were particularly good--cold, spicy, surpassingly fresh.
Aside from the ceviche, there isn't much here that can't be found at a typical Tex-Mex. Los Amigos does up the ante a bit with the authentic Mexican favorite carnitas (hunks of pork simmered with spices and beer) and a holdover from its past Peruvian life, lomo saltado (beef sautéed with tomatoes and onions), plus a couple of dishes built around mole sauces. If the ceviche is any indication, the kitchen may want to consider a few more walks on the wild side.
The desserts are similarly typical--sopapillas, flan, fried ice cream--plus the less-common buñuelos, a Mexican take on doughnuts. We opted for the ice cream ($2.25) and the flan ($2.50); while neither were anything out of the ordinary, I gave the edge to the pale, eggy custard. But please!--lose the whipped cream and multicolored sprinkles, toppings no self-respecting flan would be caught dead in.
Open 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday.