Y Tu Salsa También
Baltimore’s Newest Mexican Restaurant Has it All
Friends took me to a new Mexican restaurant they’d found in Upper Fells Point. Actually, they had called me all excited from Arcos Restaurant the first time they went there, even before their entrées arrived. Well done, friends; Arcos is a wonderful place. Right now, the menu is modest, the prices are miniscule, and the results from the kitchen are stupendous. But what really impresses is the owners’ vision of Arcos’ future, as related by proprietor Nicolas Ramos, who virtually grabs diners out of their seats for a tour of his hand-built restaurant (check out the finger-swirled curlicues on the sheetrock ceiling), and the dreamy grottolike backyard, where Ramos has installed a mammoth mesquite grill and intends to have salsa bands play on hot summer evenings.
With its candlelit niches, frosted-glass windows, and carved high-back chairs, Arcos’ dining room feels like a vespertine hangout for hip Jesuits. The single-sheet menu is written only in Spanish, and the hospitable man who doubled as bartender and waiter on the weeknight that we visited withheld it from us entirely, choosing to recite it tableside. When we did see the printed menu, on departing, it didn’t appear to match up entirely with what we were told was available, which I think had less to do with any withholding of information (the waiter did, after all, tell us about the tripe soup, as he smilingly warned us away from it) than it does with Arcos’ unsettled status. I found out soon after this visit that Arcos’ full kitchen was still under construction, which makes what they did with it all the more impressive.
You could probably depend on the availability, on any given night, of tacos dorados, stuffed with either chicken ($5.50) or beef ($6). These are fried tacos, in which the shell is rolled around a simple seasoned meat-only filling. They come piled high with shredded lettuce and cheeses, but they’re irrelevant to the dark, dusky shredded, brisket-quality meat inside. Chunky guacamole ($2.50) appears to have been homemade to order from fresh avocado pulp, cilantro, and crushed jalapeños—it had a seriously peppery finishing taste. The accompanying pleasantly salty and greaseless tortilla chips had to have been made on premises, as must have the peppery salsa that arrives with them at your table.
Also homemade—and this makes a big difference—were the tortilla shells that came with Arcos’ knock-out, don’t-miss, call-in-advance-to-make-sure-they-have entrée, the barbacoa de borrego ($8.50), a classic and hard-to-find preparation in which lamb is slow-roasted or, in this case, slow-steamed, resulting in meltingly tender meat that offers up strong lamb flavor with dark hints of wine, pepper, and perhaps cinnamon and chocolate. This stuff, roadside food in the state of Oaxaca, could be the poster entrée for the slow-food movement. We all loved, too, the pollo horneado, a marinated and simply cooked leg-and-thigh of salty chicken ($6.50), and the piled-high chicken tostadas ($5), whose bottom layer was luscious, buttery meat. A shredded iceberg salad ($3, absurd), when ladled with Argos’ rice—which has actual flavor, and things in it, like peas—smooth refried beans, and shredded cheeses, amounts to a thoroughly decent taco salad sans shell.
Because the oral version of the menu didn’t include prices, we played at trying to guess at our check’s total. We all guessed about $25 too high. The sweetest surprise was the skimpy charge for the stupendous house margaritas ($3.50 happy hour, $6 otherwise), which Arcos pours with Patron. But I have to say that I’d be kind of worried if I showed up at Arcos to find as few as three other tables occupied in the dining room—things moved just this side of slow when we had the place almost to ourselves.
Still, I’m especially tantalized by the potential of the brick-paved backyard. You know that “why don’t we have someplace like this back home” phenomenon? There’s this restaurant in San Francisco’s Mission District, El Rio, where everybody gets messed up on Sunday afternoons dancing to salsa music outside. I think about it all the time. If Nicolas Ramos’ dreams for his garden come true, and if the restaurant can keep up with what ought to be universal demand, Baltimore could be so much more fun this summer.