It’s been 25 years since salsa overtook ketchup as the most sold condiment in the United States, but Baltimore’s embrace of serious Mexican food is a newer phenomenon. And a phenomenon it is. The recent success of legitimately authentic Mexican spots like Clavel and Cocina Lucahadoras is a heartening development.
The newest member is La Calle, which opened downtown in the summer, and what a good addition it is. With excellent food on the plates and a warm reception from the staff, the restaurant is a winner.
La Calle is owned by four brothers, the Sandoval family, who originally hail from Puebla, Mexico. Prior to the restaurant’s opening, the chef, Valentino Sandoval, was chef de cuisine at the now-closed Corner Bar (aka Corner BYOB and Corner Charcuterie) in Hampden.
They describe the restaurant as “modern Mexican,” which translates to a menu filled with traditional ingredients and flavors that may be combined in unexpected ways. Chef Sandoval isn’t constrained by his upbringing, but he does a good job of honoring his roots.
When we arrived at around 7 p.m. on a chilly Thursday night, the restaurant wasn’t busy; during our meal, a few diners trickled in and out of the space, which is small and warm, with wood-paneled walls and a large window looking out to the street.
La Calle’s downtown location might mean it’s busier for lunch than dinner; when the nearby offices empty out, so do the streets. But given that it’s just a short walk to the Inner Harbor and Power Plant Live!, it should be on everyone’s short list as a dinner go-to.
We started our meal with a pair of appetizers: pulpo con nopales (octopus with cactus salad) and quesadilla de huitlacoche. We loved both without reservation.
Topped with shredded lettuce and sour cream, the huitlacoche quesadilla was a study in beige; it wasn’t the most beautiful dish we tried, but it didn’t need to be. Its combination of earthy and fresh flavors more than made up for its appearance.
“Huitlacoche” sounds sexy. It’s definition in English–corn fungus–does not. It goes by a few Americanized names, too, which are either more or less appealing, depending on your perspective: corn smut, Mexican truffle, corn mushroom.
For the uninitiated, that last term, while not terribly exotic, is probably most useful. With a chewy texture and heady flavor that’s just on the brink of meaty, huitlacoche, while not technically a mushroom, has a lot in common with its ‘shroomy cousins–and it shines tucked between two tortillas, alongside crumbly white cheese.
I like octopus best when its richness is countered by lots of acid. In the pulpo con nopales, that acid was delivered by a bright cactus and tomato salad that was terrific on its own, but better when paired with a bite of tender octopus. A drizzle of chili oil added heat, but just a little.
Entrees were similarly impressive.
Barbacoa de cordero–a giant hunk of braised lamb in adobo sauce–was paired with cactus salad, queso fresco, guacamole and warm corn tortillas that smelled so good that everyone at the table stole one as soon as they arrived.
Even without enough tortillas for all the lamb, we loved the dish. The meat, juicy and hearty, was the star, and the condiments’ acidity and fresh flavors played off it neatly.
Pato al estilo michoacan, or duck carnitas, was probably our least favorite dish of the evening, but not because it was a bad one. We simply liked everything else a little more.
Duck, served on the bone, drenched in ancho chile sauce, came with cumin-scented grits and a few halved yellow and red cherry tomatoes. The flavors felt appropriately autumnal and all the elements of the plate were well-executed and worked together.
The tomatoes added a necessary hit of sharp flavor (and color). However, compared to the sophisticated build of the cactus salad added to both the octopus and the lamb, the tomatoes’ inclusion felt less carefully considered. Still, the dish was generally a good one.
Our favorite plate of the night was the camarones al ajillo, a jumble of shrimp, chorizo and mushrooms in an appealing sauce made with guajillo chiles. The meld of flavors–meaty, sweet, spicy and earthy–worked like a dream, but our favorite part of the dish was its texture.
Bits of crispy fried pasta were tossed into the mix. The pasta added little in the way of flavor, but it contributed an occasional crunch that was a surprising counterpoint to the trio of main ingredients.
La Calle has a short, but respectable wine list that focuses on selections from Spain and South America, but you would be forgiven for skipping the grapes in favor of Mexican beer or a tart margarita. We arrived just on the tail end of happy hour and are happy to report that $5 for a La Calle margarita is, indeed, a good deal. The drink wasn’t gimmicky–no giant bowl glassware or massive, icy machines–and its balance between sweet and sour was just right.
Dessert was traditional–flan and tres leches cake–both of which were sugar bombs (in a good way). The flan was dense and eggy, doused in caramel sauce dark enough to stop just short of tasting burnt. The square of tres leches cake was intensely sweet and moist, just as it’s supposed to be.
Other than a slightly too long wait for our first round of drinks, our service was excellent. Food was well-timed out of the kitchen, our water glasses (and cocktail glasses) were kept full, and our waiter seemed to take a genuine interest in our enjoyment. At one point, he brought us a duo of salsas to try–one red and spicy, the other green and milder. Both were fresh and balanced, with the right amount of salt to bring out the flavor of the chiles.
It’s little interactions like that–chatting with a waiter about salsa made in the kitchen–that make going out to dinner so much fun. And the salsa itself? Like the rest of the meal, it was tasty.
La Calle, 10 South St., (667) 312-2964, lacallerestaurant.com
Final Grade: A-
Bottom Line: La Calle, the latest addition to Baltimore’s growing lineup of authentic Mexican restaurants, is worth a visit for the cactus salad alone, though the rest of the menu is worth a try, too.
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