Dinner is fun when it feels like a mini-vacation. And that's exactly what dinner at Mi Comalito is.
The new Charles North restaurant's menu spans several countries, from standard-issue Mexican dishes to specialties from El Salvador and Honduras.
Thanks to the longtime popularity of Mexican food, Salvadoran and Honduran dishes are familiar enough to be comforting. But because the Central American cuisines aren't as ubiquitous as Mexican, they feel less run of the mill.
Scene & Decor With warm yellow walls dotted with red accents and decorated with Salvadoran art, Mi Comalito's small space felt like a locals-only restaurant in a tiny Central American beach town. With Spanish-language music piped in at a level one notch below blaring, it sounded like one, too.
It wasn't fancy — plastic tablecloths and a TV tuned to a telenovela made sure of that — but it was fun.
The only thing that didn't feel authentically Salvadoran was the clientele. Only a few months old, Mi Comalito is already a favorite with the Charles North crowd. On a chilly Thursday night, they were out in full force, enjoying the Central American cuisine with gusto.
Appetizers We started with an order of nuegados ($6.50), a traditional Salvadoran appetizer that is also sometimes served as a dessert. Round patties, made of corn, were lightly fried until crispy on the outside and served with a sauce with the sweet-bitter flavor of molasses.
The texture — pillowy inside but crispy outside — was pleasant and the sauce's dark flavor intriguing.
The nuegados weren't, however, our favorite appetizer. That award went to the pupusa we tried as a part of an entree, the plato tipico Salvadoreno ($15.99). The little pocket of bean- and cheese-stuffed bread was savory and filling; though small, a couple pupusas would be hearty and tasty enough for a whole meal.
Entrees The rest of the plato tipico was equally satisfying. Slightly sweet fried plantains, a crispy salad drizzled with creamy dressing, well-seasoned beans and a healthy pile of rice shared a plate with the core of the meal: a slab of heavily seasoned grilled steak.
The steak wasn't tender but it was so packed with flavor we didn't care. All together, the entree was an impressive roundup of Salvadoran cuisine's brightest stars.
Fragrant sopa de marisco ($19.95), a creamy seafood soup, highlighted the fact that both El Salvador and Honduras are bordered by the sea. The gigantic bowl held several large shrimp (with heads on), chunks of salmon, mussels, clams, tons of calamari and an entire crab, still in the shell (it was light on meat but a happy find).
The seafood was lovely, especially the shrimp, which we devoured immediately, before it could linger in the hot broth and continue to cook. But our favorite part was the broth. It was aromatic and creamy.
Tortillas, served with both meals, demonstrated one difference between Central American and Mexican cuisine. Instead of Mexico's flat rounds, Mi Comalito's corn tortillas were smaller and puffier — ideal for sopping up bits of seafood broth.
Drinks Mi Comalito doesn't serve alcohol or allow BYOB, and we were disappointed that we didn't have an opportunity to hunt down some Suprema, El Salvador's popular light lager that would have been an easy match for the flavorful food.
Dessert Unfortunately, during our visit, our dessert of choice — the always enchanting tres leches cake — was not available, and we weren't in the mood for the other option: cheesecake.
Service Mi Comalito is small but was very busy during our visit; all of the tables were tag-teamed by the same man and woman. They were friendly and efficient, and despite the crowd, our meal was nicely paced and wasn't rushed.
We did have a moment of confusion at the end of dinner, wondering if we should wait for our check or approach the cash register at the front of the restaurant. We ended up walking up to the register but then discovered it wasn't necessary — our waiter would have brought us the check if we'd held out for just one more minute.
A word of warning: Mi Comalito does not allow tips on credit cards, so head the bank first and grab some cash. Just like you would if you were going on a real vacation.
Back story: Since opening in late 2013, Mi Comalito has already developed quite a following among its Charles North neighbors. Given the fun atmosphere and intense flavors of the restaurant's Salvadoran and Honduran cuisine, its popularity is no surprise.
Parking: Street parking
Signature dish: The plato tipico Salvadoreno provides a solid introduction to Salvadoran foods. An overloaded plate comes piled with a savory pupusa, fried plantains, veggie-studded rice, a crisp green salad, refried beans and a well-seasoned, if not terribly tender, steak.
Where: 2101 North Charles Street, Baltimore (entrance on 21st Street)
Open: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Tuesday; 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., Wednesday-Sunday
Credit Cards: All major, but tips must be in cash
Bottom line: Mi Comalito's friendly space and tasty Central American food is already a hit with the artsy Charles North crowd.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun