South of the Border in Ellicott City
I love Ellicott City. It¹s quaint, it¹s historic, it¹s good for a day of shopping, it¹s full of interesting eateries. I also find it a fabulous aerobic workout, shlepping up and down the central tourist drag, Main Street, which is a steep hill. After a morning or afternoon of weaving in and out of boutiques, I¹m beat. And hungry. I want a place where I can kick back, rest my tired tootsies, and toss back some good grub.
My pal Smack, always on the lookout for a new Mexican joint, told us about La Palapa Grill and Cantina and joined us there for dinner. As she would be the first to admit, nobody loves a combination plate more. At the top of the hill, we found a very pretty, multilevel dining area; a tiny, beach-shack-style bar (la palapa refers to a shelter constructed of palm fronds); and a clever mural of the way Ellicott City would look if magically transported south of the Rio Grande. We also found Freddy, our Venezuelan server--tall, handsome, and a shameless flirt. The food? Well, like Main Street, it had its ups and downs.
The complimentary salsa, spicy and onion-heavy, went fine with hot, not-too-salty tortilla chips. Guacamole dip ($5.95) contained lots of onion and tomato along with the mashed avocado, and it boasted a mellow flavor. It was a big portion, served in a tortilla "cup." Great restraint was required to limit our intake of these tasty appetizers.
Smack had already decided on one of the combo plates, all of which come with rice and beans. The deal goes like this: Pick any two ($9.95), three ($10.95), or four ($11.95) choices from among enchiladas, tacos, burritos, tamales, tostadas, and chiles rellenos.
Imagine Smack's delight to learn that, since it was a Tuesday night, any of the combos could be had for $8.95 (check with the restaurant for other nightly specials); naturally, she went with the four-way. The chile relleno hadn't been battered before frying, which gave it a somewhat naked look and taste. The chicken taco, with shredded white meat, was similarly nothing special. Her meal took an upswing with the pork enchilada, tasty tidbits of meat dressed in a fiery green sauce. But the highlight of her plate was definitely the tamale. The cornmeal dough encasing the ground-beef filling tasted as sweet and fresh as an ear of Silver Queen right off the cob. I've never been a big fan of the tamale, but this one bowled me over. Sadly, the rice, speckled with pimento, and the beans, smooth and covered with melted jack cheese, were only fair. (Owner Gilberto Cortes abstains from the use of animal fats, and we all know where the flavor in food comes from. Your heart may thank him; your taste buds won't.)
C.C., determined to go chimichanga, resisted Freddy's urging to try the crab-and-shrimp model ($10.95) and ordered the more traditional beef ($9.95) chimichanga. It wasn't a bad choice--fried but not overly greasy, filled with ground beef and green peppers, topped with lettuce, pico de gallo, cheese, sour cream, and a mild red sauce--but she vowed to go with Freddy's recommendation next time.
The best of our meals was my chicken mole ($12.95), a standard of Mexican cuisine. Mole sauce is, or should be, a masterpiece of subtlety. La Palapa's is just that, a highly mysterious blend of three kinds of hot peppers, nuts, fruit, and bitter chocolate. The sauce, lots of it, covers thin slices of white-meat chicken, the whole sprinkled with sesame seeds. On the tongue, the sauce tastes sweet at first, then smoky or slightly burnt, and finally it turns incendiary. Wildly hot, yes, but also wildly addicting.
We let Freddy, that charming devil, talk us into ordering the fried ice cream ($3.95) for dessert. "I make it specially for you," he oozed, and we fell for it. He topped it with three cherries, one for each of us, but it still tasted like ice cream rolled in corn flakes, which is more or less what it is. (We'd have done better to trek down the hill in search of a bakery or ice cream shop.)
Still, the setting was lovely: exposed brick walls, hanging plants, a fireplace, an outdoor patio sheltered by a large tent and framed in chili-pepper lights. Mexican music played softly in the background. The sangria ($3.75 per glass) went down easy. And Freddy, well, Freddy made us feel well cared for, and he was very suave.