I put a question to one of Southeast Baltimore's busiest restaurateurs: What is the secret behind the steady growth of so many Latino restaurants flourishing along the old commercial corridor in Highlandtown?
"People are looking for portions, price and quality," said Carlos Cruz, the owner of Carlos O'Charlies, a place that now qualifies as an Eastern Avenue Latin-American institution.
Diners are likely also looking for a comfortable place, in a traditional neighborhood that looks ... well, very Baltimore. I'll nominate Eastern Avenue in Highlandtown as one of Baltimore's undisputed recovery acts. It ranks up there with Hampden's 36th Street and Hamilton-Lauraville's Harford Road as a place that has built on newly found strengths.
And I'll bet these customers divide into two camps: those who want the foods they knew at their native homes and those, like me, who are curious and heard that Highlandtown was the place to get the authentic thing, at an affordable Baltimore price.
Cruz, 51, came to the U.S. from his native El Salvador when he was 14 to get away from civil war there. He was called in to help out at Lone Star Tex Mex Grill in Harborplace, where he met many Orioles players. Thanks to those friendships, one of his current jobs is to help feed the Orioles in their clubhouse. He maintains his Orioles ties but branched into the burgeoning Highlandtown community seven years ago.
My mouth was watering for some of the Peruvian roasted chicken that people have been talking about. And since I can no longer get sweetbreads at Marconi's, I thought, "Why not also try a roasted beef heart as a kebab?"
A few weeks ago, Cruz and his partner, William Coronado, opened another location, La Tia Julia, a polleria or chicken place. I'd heard this was the place for roasted chicken.
The Peruvian restaurant at 3821 Eastern Ave. aims to serve South American customers along with everyone else. Even though it opened just this month, I saw that its menu was attracting the Central and South American families who are such a part of the Highlandtown revitalization.
"We are educating people as well as feeding them," Cruz said of his mission as food ambassador.
So in the next few minutes, I got a food education from the extended Coronado family, including Coronado's sister, Karina Santiago, and his chef and cousin, Martin Vidal, who came to Baltimore from Lima. I learned that the extended family lives in nearby Dundalk and the men often do construction and carpentry as well as cooking.
The real Tia — or Aunt — Julia is Coronado's grandmother, who died some years ago. She was known throughout her Lima neighborhood for her cooking and her way with spices. What better way to establish a family-centric restaurant than to name it after Grandma?
I spoke at length with Chris Ryer, director of the Southeast Development Corp. We spoke about how La Tia Julia's is doing a good job of serving the people who are already familiar with its food and understand its menu. Those of us who did not grow up with its offerings will have a hard time fathoming some of the delicious dishes.
Ryer suggested that Southeast Development get a bilingual staff member to write descriptive paragraphs for the restaurants in the area, which could help those of us who are unfamiliar with Peruvian dishes.
I am food-adventurous: In a restaurant, I like to point and await the consequences.
At La Tia Julie, I touched a picture on the menu with a finger. What arrived was surprising: a powerful lime soup laced with fresh fish and milk, served as a drink in a glass, and garnished with toasted Peruvian-style corn, whose kernels are much larger than ours. (As a rule, I am not a fish eater. But I made an exception and loved it.) I was told people order it to cure hangovers.
"Things are changing," Cruz told me. "And we'll see a better Highlandtown."