The face that Cabanita's Chicken shows passersby on Lombard and Ann streets in Fells Point does little to discourage them from passing on by. It's dark-windowed and worn to a plain, shy late-middle age and a pinch sketchy. Perhaps that was the fate of the last Peruvian chicken joint — El Rinconcito's Peruano — to occupy this space.
Note to even vaguely hungry passersby: Reconsider.
Its interior triggers an instinct to pretend you've mistaken the place for a bail bond office and skulk away. Instead of liquor bottles marshaled on the shelves behind the long bar, there are rows of Coke cans and a pyramid stack of Red Bull; most other shelves are empty, and you can catch glimpses of the backroom operation and maybe a mop in the corner. But pause and let the fumes from the open-flame oven persuade you to stay.
12:18 p.m. Cabanita's floors and exposed ductwork give it a small-town VFW hall feel. Sturdy but aging tables and chairs add to a sense that the previous occupants dematerialized and the new guys came in, figured things looked good enough, and got down to cooking.
12:28 p.m. Our waitress was great, all smiles with a touch of sass that let you know you're welcome here and that you'd be nuts not to order the chicken. We waved her off twice as we checked out the menu. She kept coming back, still smiling.
Cabanita's menu isn't large. You're looking at really only eight entrees. Chicken, certainly, but the other seven all sound good enough that it may take some time to decide which to settle on. We chose the half chicken with two sides for $7.99 and the Lomo Saltado, which is a beef stew that includes rice and fries as ingredients — $12.
A couple of ceviches, fried trout and a few beef and chicken dishes rounded out the entree menu. They offer a shrimp soup for $12 and another couple of soups for about half that price. That, and a handful of sides, is it. Same menu all day.
A maniacally upbeat Latin soundtrack, at a decibel level no more intrusive than wallpaper, works with the waitress till you feel like you're having fun. A pair of potted trees, maybe 4 feet tall, are strung with flashing Christmas lights. In another place, they would be pathetic. Here, it's endearing, homey.
12:45 p.m. Casual observation suggests Cabanita's enjoys a healthy carryout trade. Their meals do seem easily portable, reheatable and affordable. The chicken especially. A quarter chicken is $4.99, a half $7.99 and a whole is $13.99, with two sides. Think rotisserie for approximate size. Cabanita's birds differ from those you scoop up at the grocery store in their richer spice and texture spectrums.
Even if you don't know Peruvian, you'll get the general spice profile, crackling pepper up front with just a back palate trace of cumin. The dark meat drips and the white, just a tad on the dry side for rotisserie, finds its life in the seasoning.
This is the act Cabanita's wants to be known for. And it should be. Those lucky enough to live or pass near here regularly have a wonderful alternative to the run-of-the-mill carryout chicken joints. But if the Lomo Saltado is a reliable reference, don't pass up the other offerings.
The beef in the Saltado was toothier, like round steak, than you might expect in a stew, but the incredible broth, picked up and loved by the onions and tomatoes and fries that are part of the mix, is the soul of the dish. White rice accompanies, helping soak up the last drops of broth.
The fried yuca (cassava) is delicately browned, and if you like this rooty taste, you'll get plenty of it here. A mayo sauce and a green chili sauce were far preferable to ketchup as a yuca condiment. The rice and beans are bathed in a savory stock just buttery and salty enough to lift the two staples above their station, toward entree status.
1:08 p.m. When we weren't oohing over our plates, we were smiling and nodding throughout this lunch. Cabanita's feels artlessly right with itself, devoid of fanfare and mercifully unselfconscious.
1:12 p.m. There's no hurry here. But our server kept track of us and had we lingered less at the beginning and end of the meal, we could have cut a good 15 minutes off our time.
You'd want a relaxed group to use Cabanita's for a formal business lunch, but for a worker bee sneak-away, Cabanita's is heaven on the cheap with a taste out of someone's home kitchen.
Where: 1801 E. Lombard St.
Lunch hours: 11 a.m.-8:30 p.m. Closed Tuesday
Lunch entries: $4.99 - $16.49
[Key: ✭✭✭✭: Outstanding; ✭✭✭: Good; ✭✭: Fair or Uneven; ✭: Poor]