After two decades of providing Mexican-style fare on the Avenue in Hampden, Holy Frijoles temporarily closed when it was heavily damaged by a fire August 2016. But the restaurant bounced back a year later and seems to be going strong again.
The original kitchen — which, as owner Geoffrey Danek described it, “melted” in the fire — has been replaced, repositioned and outfitted with equipment the old one didn’t have.
Longtime fans should find this is pretty much the same Holy Frijoles they remember, serving up tacos, burritos and the like with a certain insouciance. Newcomers, assuming they are not purists seeking absolutely authentic Mexican cuisine, should find it worth discovering. And everybody will be heartened to know that the place still provides customers with its trademark pinball machines in a back room for extra diversion.
SCENE & DECOR: The rather spacious bar and dining rooms feature unfussy, straightforward decor with assorted Mexican-influenced embellishments for atmosphere. The tables in the front windows are worth making a beeline for; they’re almost like private booths, and, better yet, offer bird’s-eye views of the passing parade of the colorful folks who give Hampden its distinctive character.
APPETIZERS: The gratis chips are admirably thin and crisp, all the better to go with the punch-packing, no-stinting-on-the-garlic salsa. A great upgrade option for chips is the dip assortment dubbed the Holy Trinity ($10) — a fine guacamole (one member of our party thought it could have used more lime to provide an acidic counterweight); a rich bean dip; and a thick queso that reminded us of Velveeta, but not in a bad way.
A snappy appetizer is the chile relleno ($7), a poblano pepper stuffed with a well-balanced blend of cheeses and chile sauce. A crispy beef taquito ($8) wasn’t exactly bursting with flavors, but satisfied.
ENTREES: Some of us like it when fajitas come sizzling so noisily that heads turn in the restaurant, but we found rewards in the quieter version that arrived at the table. These fajitas with shrimp ($16) offered considerable flavor and benefited from the accompanying sauteed peppers and onions, not to mention some crunchy veggies.
Even better were the carnitas tacos ($3.50 single, $10 for platter of three with refried beans and rice) and short rib tacos ($3.50 single, $12 platter), with their slow-roasted, well-seasoned meats.
On the down side, the carnitas verde enchilada ($14) turned out dry and stingy with the salsa verde. A chicken chimichanga ($11) may have been crisply fried at one point, but was rather soft when it hit the table, and so thickly packed with cheese, peppers, onions, etc., that it lacked a defining character.
DESSERT: The menu doesn’t currently offer desserts. Not to worry, though. You don’t have to go far to find a sweet fix on the Avenue.
DRINKS: The $5 happy hour margaritas did the job, containing sufficient tequila and boasting a nice lime-y tang. The mezcal old fashioned ($11) proved to be a smooth, enjoyable variant on the usual. The drink list also includes draft cervezas, assorted cans and bottles of beer, and such soft drinks as house-made lemon-limeade.
SERVICE: We had to ask for flatware, napkins and, at one point, plates. Our server disappeared for long stretches, but was friendly and efficient when he did stop by — except for the time he grabbed a not-quite-finished margarita glass. Speaking of glasses, the straws in them come with a bit of paper still covering the ends, a quaint little hygienic touch you rarely encounter anymore.
Backstory: Geoffrey Danek opened Holy Frijoles in mid-summer 1996, when it was little more than a hole in the wall. A few years later, the restaurant expanded, incorporating a next-door building and adding a pinball parlor. A fire struck in August 2016, right after the 20th anniversary. The restaurant reopened last summer, but held its official grand reopening Feb. 22.
Signature dish: Tacos
Where: 908 W 36th St., Hampden.
Contact: 410-235-2326, holyfrijoles.net
Open: 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Monday to Friday; noon to 2 a.m. Saturday and Sunday
Credit cards: No American Express
Handicap accessible: Yes
Bottom line: This is a laid-back, welcoming neighborhood spot serving generally reliable Mexican-American fare.