Mexican Café Gets It Right After Crosstown Move

by Rick Wade, for The Capital – Entertainment

Many qualities endear a restaurant to a community over time. There’s certain comfort inside — and elusive combination of color and light, tables and chairs — that instantly conveys a message: Welcome to this place.

Then there are the people, often familiar faces who remember you or, even if they don’t, have welcome in their voices when you arrive. And the people you probably don’t see — the crew in the kitchen producing meals of consistent quality, pleasure, and value.

That was the success story of the Mexican Café, a 17-year fixture on Bay Ridge Avenue. Its neighborhood atmosphere, including picnic tables on an outdoor patio, upbeat service, and hearty food and drink, calibrated to American taste buds and moderately priced, won it a firm niche on the local scene.

The place was fun.

When the Mexican Café had to vacate its Annapolis Neck premises to make room for a chain drug store, the howls were loud and long. Soon owner Pam Gladfelter announced the West Annapolis move to the site of the former upscale Northwoods. When a favorite restaurant transplants to a new and hopefully better location, longtime customers get nervous. Will the old charms be lost?

Well, as devotees of the Mexican Café by now surely can attest (the “new” café opened in early May): all is well in West Annapolis.

The easy ambiance of the original is intact — right along with the food and service. “Don’t mess with the success,” was clearly the guiding light. All 28 employees from Bay Ridge Avenue hung on during months of unemployment to be part of the reborn café.

We were there on a Tuesday night in the middle of the recent rain-soaked week, and the room was nearly full. The decor perks you up immediately: pink, blue, white, and other happy colors, lighting that’s not too bright, and acoustics that encourage conversation.

A patio and a picnic tables have been added, and every table sported a photo of the Bay Ridge Avenue original taken in a snow storm. Message: We haven’t forgotten our roots.

The serving team is quick, knowledgeable, focused, and flexible. Many Mexican eateries discourage substitutions from their standard menu combinations, often because they’re pre-assembled. Not a problem on Melvin Avenue. And our server was quick to steer us from dishes she thought we wouldn’t enjoy.

Anyone who frequents Mexican restaurants knows they have one thing in common: many choices from long menus. Mexican Café is no exception, and the secret is, as my Aunt Edith used to say, “Don’t let your eyes get bigger than your stomach!” Not every dish will knock your socks off, but every one is the result of skill and kitchen know-how.

Chips and salsa with a kick are delivered as soon as you’re seated. You can order your beverage from the standard bar fare, or drink wine from a list of a few varieties that don’t pretend to be more than they are.

Mexican food demands margaritas, beer, and similar libations, and you can choose from among a half-dozen margarita variations (orange crush is a standout), assorted frozen and specialty drinks, and 20 imported and domestic brews. Sangria is served, and a dozen tequilas, too. Margaritas are divas here, and they are very good although a tad sweeter than I remember.

When you’re ready to dig into the menu, you have your work cut-out for you. The appetizer list runs the gamut from nachos and quesadillas, to taquitos and more, ranging from $3.50 to $12.99.

We chose a sampler of the tequilas and enjoyed four crispy-fried mini tacos with very flavorful, meaty beef, chicken, and chorizo fillings that needed only a little longer in the basket after frying to reach perfection. The accompanying sauces hit the mark with heat and flavor as well.

If you’d rather stick with the dips for corn chips, there are nine choices that can easily substitute for an appetizer. The “Drunken Crab Dip” ($12.50) we chose was delicious — subtly seasoned — but the texture was more like a cream of crab soup than a dip, making it a challenge to get those lumps of high quality crab meat onto the chip. If it could be thickened a bit without losing the lusciousness…

There are a couple of soups and three salads that can add on chicken, shrimp, and steak to create a meal. When it comes to serious eating, you’ll find tacos, burritos, enchiladas, chimichangas, flautas, and taquitos, café specials, and café combos in an array of platters and combinations priced between $7.99 and $19.99, with many accompanied by rice and beans.

My too frequent disappointments at Mexican restaurants are: the chef is timid with the spices, and as almost every dish is swathed in cheese, it’s hard to distinguish one from the other. No such disappointments at the Mexican Café.

We opted for the Pollo Asada and My Favorite Combo, a platter than proffers a taco, fajita, an enchilada, and a mini burrito for our dinner courses. The Pollo Asada was a half-chicken, long marinated and roasted to fall-off-the-bone tenderness, served on a bed of lettuce with tortillas and the ubiquitous rice and beans. Whatever the marinade, it left the meat with just enough spice to be interesting, not overpowering. It was a homey meal right for a rainy night.

My Favorite Combo fared nearly as well. The taco was crispy; its meat tender. Ditto the enchilada and burrito, each distinctive in taste with just the right amount of cheese. The fajita lacked the sizzle that I like when I have it as a meal, but the quality ingredients and seasoning earned my respect.

The Mexican Café can satisfy your sweet tooth (if you have room) with sopapillas, fried ice cream, and chimichanga cheesecake, and there is a special menu for “little amigos and amigos” that will keep [kids] happy on a family night out.

If you fondly remember the old Mexican Café on Bay Ridge Avenue, you’ll give the nod to the crosstown successor. Gladfelter and her posse of customer-pleasing cooks and servers got it right.

If you never got around to a Mexican Café visit and you’re a fan of Mexican food, find out why it’s been a local favorite for so long.

Rick Wade is a freelance writer based in Arnold.