Living, as I do, in the northern part of Baltimore, I often complain that there are just no decent Mexican restaurants in Baltimore. Sure, the food is good at Loco Hombre (especially the salsa trio), but the service is sporadic at best. Yes, El Salto is outrageously cheap and the food is decent, but it doesn't exactly offer much in the way of the dining experience (unless you consider eating in a place that has a still-visible drive through window kitschy and cool). Frisco Burrito is delicious, but it's only one short step up from Taco Bell. And while we're all anxiously awaiting the opening of Zen West in the old Gator's space near Belvedere Square, there's no guarantee that it won't turn out to be more Applebee's than authentic.
But, again, these are all my local-locals. And Baltimore is not a big enough city that driving across town for a burrito is out of the question. That is how Cooper and I found ourselves in Upper Fells Point last night, with our friends Matt and Bill, soaking in the humidity on the back patio of Arcos.
We made plans to meet Matt and Bill for dinner someplace near their house in Canton and when I suggested Mexican, Matt immediately countered with "Arcos." He described it as "slightly upscale Mexican"...and I was sold.
Maybe it's because we were feeling the Latino vibe, but on the drive through Fells to Canton, Cooper and I both commented on how many little Mexican groceries, restaurants and taquerias have sprung up around Upper Fells recently. The Mexican and Latin American population has blown up in that area, and the growth shows no signs of slowing down - good news for the neighborhood's food rep. After all, why should Greektown and Little Italy get all the ethnic glory?
Twenty minutes later, as Matt lead us through the front of the restaurant to the large, windy brick patio in the back, I'm sure I embarrassed myself with my unconcealed admiration for the space. Arcos is gorgeous. Full of aged wood, weathered brick and the kind of arches that make traditionally-disposed architects salivate, the restaurant has the feel of, well, someplace that's actually in Mexico. Or, more accurately, someplace that's in Spain.
Despite the outrageous heat and humidity (yesterday was the kind of day people from Maryland complain about), we braved the elements to sit on the back patio - and it was worth it. The ceiling fans didn't do a whole lot to cool us down, but the brushed copper tables, intricately carved wooden chairs (Matt's chairback was a horse's head) and overall old world charm helped us all forget just how hot we were. Again, Arcos is gorgeous.
And what about the food? Oh yeah, the meal. While the ambiance alone is enough to make this a successful restaurant, the drinks and food and service do nothing but add to the experience. Our waiter was charming and around just enough. The beer selection satisfied all the boys, and I loved my sangria rojo (not too sweet, but sweet enough).
The salsa and chips were phenomenal, and everyone was thrilled with their entrees. My enchiladas pollos with salsa verde was the most American-Mexican dish on the table - but it was a far cry from the soggy, microwaved, cheese-smothered tortillas-with-salt so often associated with enchiladas. The tortillas were fresh and just a little crispy, the chicken was flavorful without tasting like a mouth full of MSG and the sauce was just a tiny bit spicy.
Matt had the carne asada, which he loved...and it looked beautiful (I'm such a sucker for any plate with a lot of color). And Cooper and Bill both ended up ordering the lamb - their first choice or two wasn't available (maybe because it was Tuesday). No matter, the lamb was fantastic. Also served with a stack of tortillas, it had obviously been slow cooked in a whole host of spices. Matt, just back from a few weeks in Greece, turned up his nose a bit, saying it wasn't quite as good as the lamb he'd had in Athens, but even his food-and-travel-snob self agreed that it was, really, very good.
The only slight disappointment was with our appetizer - which Matt recommended, so I'm willing to believe it was just an off night for that dish. We shared a queso and chorizo dip that turned out to be a vat of white cheese with some crumbles of sausage...and a little tough to the touch. Like it might have seen the inside of a microwave.
But that was just a minor distraction. All in all, we had a fantastic dinner - I left leaving wanting to come back soon. Preferably on a night when I had hours to sit out on the patio, drinking sangria and just talking. And eating, of course. But at a place this pretty, just the sitting would be worth the drive. (OK, OK, the drive from the suburbs takes about 20 minutes.)
Verdict: Fantastic and authentic. Can't wait to go back.
UPDATE: Zen West...not a disappointment. Instead, it is my go-to.
AND ALSO: Here's Urbanspoon's Arcos page: