Neighborhood Institution Needs To Remodel Its Fare
The balance of the menu at Alonso’s is trapped in an arid no man’s land between sturdy bar food and enterprising bistro fare, echoing its face-lift five years ago. The Roland Park institution went under the surgeon’s knife in 2000, emerging much healthier-looking but not resembling its wonderful old grimy self. These things happen, though it is kind of sad: Alonso’s just doesn’t feel like a capital-p Place anymore. It’s still lit somewhat gloomily, and a crowd of regulars still gathers at the bars, though smokers have to venture outside. Maybe tobacco is what gives walls that homey, lived-in feel that the new Alonso’s has yet to acquire. Even the sports memorabilia looks like it was bought in bulk.
The food’s wayward turn is surprising, considering the track record of its owners, who also operate the adjacent—and very good—Loco Hombre as well as a deservedly popular catering company. Eating at Alonso’s is for the most part middling, uninvolving, and sometimes not very good at all.
Alonso’s is famous, still, for its massive one-pound hamburger ($11.95). I saw lots of burgers ordered and eaten, often without rolls (those crazy carb-watchers). I think that if you ever liked these big burgers you’ll like them still, but I swear I don’t think they season the ground beef even the tiniest little bit, or if they do it’s very subtle. This hamburger just doesn’t taste as good as others, and because it’s colossal it resists precise and even cooking. I don’t see how it could arrive other than cooked one way in the middle and another around the edges. My burger only really came to life when I pulled its remaining half out of the refrigerator at midnight and showered some salt and fresh pepper on it.
Alonso’s was always known, too, for its pizza, and if anything the pizza is better now—thin, crispy crust topped with a four-cheese blend of Parmesan, mozzarella, asiago, and Bel Paese, and for once, I could actually make contact with each different cheese. The toppings are swell, too: The grilled and roasted vegetables on a roasted vegetable pizza ($10.25) would have impressed more had they been held over the flame a bit longer, but the hand-selected ingredients ($1.75) on a create-your-own-pizza ($10.25)—Italian sausage, olives, and broccolini—were well handled, choice ingredients.
I admired the thought behind the mozzarella porcupine appetizer ($7.95). It made a nice first impression—mozzarella wrapped in kataifi (shredded phyllo) served on marinara sauce and a basil-infused olive oil—but sensual pleasure was curiously missing, with no lava ooze from the cheese. House salads are bright and peppy-looking, composed with vivid greens and pert lemony vinaigrettes. A Caesar salad boasts crisp romaine hearts but suffers under excessively creamy dressing.
Something possessed a companion to try the veal Marsala ($21.95). It was nasty—tough mouse-gray meat submerged under a heaping mound of fettuccine. I couldn’t find any Marsala flavor at all, and shiitake mushrooms were a weird, unflattering accompaniment. On the other hand, I very much enjoyed the roasted flavors of the marinara sauce on a huge slab of lasagna ($12.95), which was filled with sausage, ground beef, and veal, but the noodles were overcooked and mushy.
Cajun chicken pasta ($12.95), flecked with peas, pine nuts, and fresh tomatoes didn’t come together into a persuasively tasty dish. And as with most of our meal, it didn’t look particularly inviting. Why put a cardboard tomato on a jumbo lump crab cake sandwich ($13.95), and why serve a crab cake that everyone is going to dislike for being too small even before tasting how oddly dry it is? A portobello panino ($7.95) wasn’t really a grilled sandwich—the mushroom wanted some marinating or seasoning, and the rosemary focaccia was supermarket quality.
The Alonso burger is still a rite of passage, and I’d hate to keep anyone from observing it. I’d sooner recommend the pizza, though. But what I really want is food that makes us all shut up about the good old days at Alonso’s.