Alonso's in Roland Park is an unpretentious restaurant in a pretentious part of the city. Since 1931, it's been serving modest food and good beer to much acclaim and many satisfied customers. It hasn't changed one bit over the years.
Well over three-quarters full and bustling is how we found Alonso's on a Wednesday night. A relaxed crowd of older patrons, families and couples filled the seats and booths. The missing tiles in the ceiling suggested that Alonso's is renovating (it's not), while the walls of the dining room were covered with signed jerseys from local sports stars. At first, it was easy to dismiss Alonso's as just another old sports bar, but a look at the drink menu changed our minds.
Eight pages long and containing just over 200 selections, the beer section of the drinks menu immediately had us in the mood for some sudsy experimentation. I started with a Stillwater Autumnal ($9), which turned out to be a great choice. While it looked murky, it smelled fresh and tasted clean and cool like an early October day. It was also light enough to not interfere with the appetizers we ordered. Our over-worked server helped us with the more unfamiliar selections on the beer list. He was smart, fast and attentive, while being the only person waiting on the whole dining room. He worked hard for his money that night and everyone left accommodated.
The steamed Prince Edward Island mussels ($10) were delicious. The sauce was herby, garlicky and creamy and bright, while the mussels were soft and grit-free. These are the mussels to try if you've never eaten mussels before. The only difficulty was that the two small pieces of garlic bread weren't enough to sop up the silky sauce. It was fine, though; we had our fingers. The salmon cakes ($8) were shuffleboard sized pucks of fried salmon that had no real flavor or discernible spice. They were perplexingly bland and only a vehicle for tartar sauce.
We knew we had to try a burger while at Alonso's. Its newly expanded burger menu features 26 signature combinations in either half- or full-pound versions, and the Red Rooster ($13 for half-pound) sounded the most interesting to us. A Roseda Farms beef patty (you can also choose bison) is topped with shredded carrots, cilantro, sriracha, and a hard-boiled egg that's been chopped in half. All of this is served on a brioche bun to complete the Vietnamese flair (France did, after all, occupy Vietnam). The burger was a fantastic mix and balance of flavors, with hot, sweet, crunchy, chewy, vibrant and creamy all holding sway in one bite. We would have liked the eggs sliced instead of halved. They were an integral part of the flavor and needed to be distributed evenly and not bunched up in the center. The side of tater tots that accompanied the burger was the best I've had in years.
Also cooked to an ideal medium rare was the rack of lamb ($20). Supple and tender, the meat tasted of lamb without being overly gamey. The red wine-cranberry sauce was never reduced enough to make an impact. Reduced further and skimmed of fat, it would have been a sweet but tart complement to the rich lamb. The fantastic beer I drank with the chops was the stone saison du buff ($7). A collaboration between three breweries, this beer was brewed with parsley, rosemary, sage and thyme and was unlike any other beer I've ever had. Its herbaceous kick highlighted the rosemary the lamb chops were cooked with, but the saison would be good with any meat dish on Alonso's menu.
The short dessert menu was filled with old favorites that could satisfy any sweet tooth. The cakes and pies at Alonso's are made at Cassandra's Cakes in Towson. The lemon-blueberry cheesecake ($7) was creamy yet airy and thankfully not too sugary. The sweetness came from the rich blueberry glaze on top, which tasted great and provided a dramatic color contrast to the cheesecake. The carrot cake ($7) was slightly spicy and nutty with a good frosting but suffered from being too cold.
As long as it keeps serving the food it's putting out now, it's a good bet Alonso's will be open for another 80 years. Hopefully they will get that ceiling fixed before then.
[Key: ✭✭✭✭: Outstanding; ✭✭✭: Good; ✭✭: Fair or Uneven; ✭: Poor]
Back-story: Alonso's is a longtime favorite in Roland Park that still serves good food and features a great beer menu.
Parking: Lot in the back.
Signature dish: The Red Rooster Burger, Steamed Prince Edward Island Mussels
Where: 413-415 Cold Spring Lane Baltimore, MD, 21210
Contact: 410-235-3433, http://www.alonsos.com
Open: 11:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays, 11:30 a.m.-11:30 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays
Credit Cards: All major