Every college town needs at least one decent, inexpensive, fun Mexican food spot. In Towson, El Rodeo might be that place — but it seems to wish it was more.
The Allegheny Avenue restaurant, which opened in early 2012, hits the right notes when it keeps things simple, fresh and low-key. It's less successful with attempts to elevate cuisine into gourmet territory. And while the staff's laid-back attitude is okay for a casual spot, the service needs fine-tuning.
Drinks The margarita and sangria (both $3 during happy hour, which runs from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. daily) weren't the best we've ever had — the margarita was made with sour mix instead of fresh lime juice, and the sangria was overly sweet — but they were easily drinkable and worth the $3 price tag. A $2 can of Tecate was equally pleasing.
After our first round, we opted for a sangrita ($3 during happy hour) — half margarita, half sangria. The mix was a good one: The margarita took the sugary edge off the sangria, creating a bright, fruity cocktail.
Appetizer El Rodeo's chips and salsa were complimentary and tasty. The salsa fresca, made in-house, had a pleasant balance of heat and sweet tomato.
El Rodeo bills their stuffed jalapenos ($7) as "fiery," and they were. Whole peppers were packed with pulled chicken, rolled in breadcrumbs and fried until the coating was crispy and the pepper soft.
Our first bite was the best. We got the full flavor of spiced chicken and fresh pepper and we appreciated the combination of crunchy and tender textures. After that, the pepper flavor was lost in a blur of heat. We enjoyed them, but were thankful for the big pile of sour cream-topped shredded lettuce that came on the side.
Entrees Just as our mouths cooled down from the jalapenos, we bit into a steak and chorizo taco ($12) so hot — in temperature, not spice — our eyes filled with tears.
Heat aside, we liked the taco's combination of salty, spicy chorizo, chunks of steak, fresh cilantro, mild cheese and sauteed onions and peppers.
On the side, black beans topped with queso fresco were underseasoned, but perked up with a few drops of lively, earthy green salsa. Accompanying rice was nicely cooked and seasoned, but also benefited from a scoop of salsa.
The relleno Chesapeake ($14) was not as successful. Plated for drama, a large pepper stuffed with crab meat sat in a pool of brown morita sauce drizzled with sour cream with a molded mound of rice off to the side.
Some elements of the dish were good: The sauce was smoky, spicy and appealing and the lumps of sauteed crab were sweet and fresh. But the pepper itself was disappointing. Soft, wobbly and lukewarm, it tasted as if it had been cooked earlier and then reheated before serving. So much effort went into plating the dish, but the ingredients themselves required more attention.
Scene & Decor El Rodeo has tables both inside and on the sidewalk. During our Sunday night visit, only a few were occupied, but with dark walls and shiny silver stars hanging from the ceiling, it was easy to imagine the place packed with local residents and college students.
Service For the first half our meal, our waiter was friendly and attentive, keeping our drinks filled and offering extra chips. The kitchen was slow, though, and after entrees arrived, our waiter lost steam. With his attention captured by the Orioles' game, we had to chase him down to order dessert and ask for our bill.
Dessert After discovering that the kitchen was out of churros, we opted for fried ice cream ($6). Normally, we're fans of the cheeky dessert, but El Rodeo's version was half-hearted. Vanilla ice cream, coated with a crust of stale cornflakes, was so frozen we could barely crack it with our spoons. Even bad fried ice cream tastes good, though, so it wasn't a total loss.
Bottom Line El Rodeo does some things very well. The freshly made salsas and sauces are great, and while the drinks won't win any mixology awards, you can't beat the price.
The restaurant should build on its strengths. With more focus on fresh prep and value, and less on presentation, it would win even more of Towson's hearts and stomachs.
Back story: Open for about a year and a half, El Rodeo serves inexpensive drinks and well-seasoned Tex-Mex classics to locals and students in downtown Towson.
Parking: Street parking
Signature dish: The tacos de lambro are stuffed with sauteed onions and peppers, savory chorizo and slices of steak then topped with mild cheese and a sprinkle of cilantro. A spicy, earthy green salsa, provided on the side, adds zest to the tacos and to the accompanying rice and beans.
Where: 28 West Allegheny Avenue, Towson, MD 21204
Contact: 410-830-2390; http://www.elrodeotexmex.com
Open: 11:30 a.m. to 2 a.m. daily
Credit Cards: All major
Rating: 2 stars
[Key: Superlative: 5 stars; Excellent: 4 stars; Very Good: 3 stars; Good: 2 stars; Promising: 1 star ]