Bar review: 15 years in, Holy Frijoles is sly, vivacious

After a bar has been around for a while, it's easy to take it for granted.

This year, three Baltimore bars that have been in business for over a decade marked major anniversaries: Brewer's Art turned 15 and Max's 25. These two bars are hardly taken for granted; they are universally praised by wildly different constituencies. The third, though, which turned 15 in September, doesn't get nearly enough love.

Holy Frijoles deserves recognition. It has excellent, under-rated cocktails — the margaritas are poured by the dozen — and a menu that is stuffed with guilty pleasures. And, as it's always been clear to me, including when I visited last week, it has something else that's rare in bars, and especially Hampden: a sly sense of humor that doesn't suffocate.

Among its neighbors, being cute, kooky, and retro is de rigueur. And I'm not talking just about Cafe Hon. Even Golden West puts up its own kind of costume-y front. As a "Mexican eatery," as it says on its awning, camp would have been an easy route for Holy Frijoles. Even Mexican restaurants that are owned by actual Latinos sometimes read like parodies (have you been to the new Mari Luna in Mount Vernon?) — broad and cheap.

Fortunately, what Geoff Danek has done at Holy Frijoles comes across more like pastiche. The restaurant, divided into a main hall with a bar and a second, cramped dining room, looks drawn from a Robert Rodriguez movie. It is recognizable, but off, like a copy of a copy.

When you walk in, the place pops with color and vim. The walls are painted a Tabasco red. Mexican Christmas lights, looking like oversized Skittles, hang from every other corner. They surround, for instance, the bar's tabs chalkboard, making it look like a marquee.

Chinese lanterns hang over the main room, and adorably DIY, Etsy-esque local art covers the walls opposite the bar. When Holy Frijoles celebrated its 15th anniversary, it drew out the birthday over a week instead of just limiting to a day. The celebration featured nightly pinata bashes, taco-eating contests and, to top things off, a quinceanera after-party.

In all, no one could mistake Holy Frijoles for, let's say, a restaurant in San Francisco's The Mission, America's capital of haute Mexican cooking. Or its quinceana party for the real thing.

But Danek is not going for authenticity — the restaurant's name itself is a knowing wink. Instead, Holy Frijoles celebrates a Southwestern, Tex-Mex attitude and style without ever claiming to be the real thing. All the decor, cocktail names, and events say as much. It's an attitude that makes the restaurant pleasantly frivolous.

The food, of course, is also Americanized Mexican, the type that would make Mission-ites blanch. Tortilleria Sinaloa in Fells Point has the real deal, and Oyamel in Washington D.C. is a model of upscale Mexican cooking. But, I'm sorry, Frijoles' nachos are just how I like them — crunchy, cheesy, a little sinful.

Service at Holy Frijoles is notoriously mixed — a friend likes to say it all depends on whose shift it is. But, on my visits last week, and, actually, every time I've been there, service has been impeccable. I always eat at the bar, and the bartenders, though somewhat aloof, check with me frequently, and most importantly, bring me my drinks and food fast. One problem: On several visits, the kitchen seems to run out of ingredients, like chorizo.

The beer on tap is unadventurous — Modelo and Dos Equis, two of Mexico's macrobrews, which like their American cousins, are on the limp side — are among the five drafts. But by the bottle, there are over 30 brands, including the excellent Mexican Sol and the beer that is known to anyone who's vacationed in Spain, Estrella Damm.

One of Holy Frijoles' most underrated assets is its mixologists, headed by, among others, manager Aylen Beazley-Maquehue. But they should be singled out for putting together a smart and comprehensive cocktail menu.

The 20 or so drinks are also — with names like the Frijoletini, a vodka cocktail served with jalapeno stuffed olives ($9); and, the Frijole-jito, a beer-and-rum mixed drink ($8) — as vivacious as Holy Frijoles itself.

Holy Frijoles

Backstory: Holy Frijoles has been in business in Hampden for 15 years. It celebrated the anniversary with a five-day celebration in September that included piñata bashes, a quinceanera and taco-eating contests.

Parking: Metered street parking is available on The Avenue.

Signature drink: Try the Hampdenite, the bar's take on a cosmo. In total, 20 cocktails, all under $9; five beers on tap, including Dos Equis ($4 by the glass), Sierra Nevada ($4), and Loose Cannon ($5). The bar also serves pitchers, with Loose Cannon being the priciest at $16.

Where: 908 W. 36th St., Baltimore

Contact: 410-235-2326;

Open: 11 a.m.-1 a.m. Monday-Friday, noon-1 a.m. Saturday-Sunday. The kitchen closes at 11 p.m. daily

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