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Howard dining: Fiesta of flavor at Xitomate

Restaurateur Julio Soto will soon launch a third Howard County eatery -- each of which shows off just how yummy “authentic” Mexican cuisine can be. The third, opening at Turf Valley Towne Square in Ellicott City, will be the (twin) sister restaurant of a place called Xitomate Cocina Mexicana & Tequila Bar, which opened in January 2013 in Columbia. And that year-old cucina is a younger cousin of Azul 17 on Snowden River Parkway, in Columbia, which is more a special-occasion type place than its younger relatives.

The Xitomate in Columbia is located on Waterloo Road, where Donna’s restaurant once resided, and  provides about 150 seats in a variety of options, including booths and high-top tables. Chandeliers suspended from the industrial ceiling feature punched-tin shades, walls are done in a burnt sienna and dark wood tables are bare, with red cloth napkins set atop.

A couple of whimsical touches, too: Behind the bar is a row of masked heads (what manager Peter Donohue calls luchador masks), representing the many stars of Mexican wrestling, and along another wall is a black and white mural depicting lively looking skeletons enjoying a fiesta à la “el dia de los muertos”  (“the day of the dead”). 

La cocina

Xitomate, pronounced Hee toe MAH tay, means tomato. Certainly, there are some tomatoes in the kitchen here -- in the salsa (thin, homemade, with a nice after-bite) that comes with the warm, crisp tortilla chips your server will bring you while you peruse the bill of fare. 

Tomatoes also are featured in the marvelous guacamole served up in a stone bowl and in the pico de gallo that comes with the grilled steak quesadillas. But flavoring agents abound here, and the variety of them can impress virtually any palate.

One look at the menu and you’ll see that Executive Chef Javier wants to take you beyond the typical tacos into the realm of “real” Mexican cuisine.

The menu is large, each dish thoroughly described. Three kinds of guacamole, three soups, eight salads, a trio of ceviches, five quesadillas and nine varietal dishes serve as appetizers.

If you’re fond of fondue as an appetizer (or light main dish, for that matter), try the queso fundido con tequila ($7.95). This one featured an ample pool of hot, melted Chihuahua cheese (think mozzarella), with a bit of mellow from the vodka, and tasting a bit salty, but just begging to be scooped onto warm corn tortillas. 

Traditions and specialties

Main dish offerings certainly include what we tend to think of as “typical” Mexican fare — enchiladas, tacos, fajitas, chilies rellenos and burritos. Further, there are nine signature dishes (plus weekend chef’s specials) that allow the kitchen to strut its stuff even more creatively, and these, too, can afford you some side dishes that are more interesting than what we’ve become accustomed to.

Two of our tasters ordered “traditional” Mexican. The cheese enchiladas ($12.50, titled Enchiladas de Queso y Cebolla) are Mexican comfort fare, to be sure, and made even more so with sides of tender, mellow black beans and white rice flavored with fresh cilantro.

Chicken and steak fajitas ($15.95/combo) came in a sizzling iron skillet, with plenty of tender steak strips and moist diced chicken breast pieces and tender sautéed bell peppers and onions. There’s plenty of attention to detail here, with black beans on the side, cream and cilantro sauces, pico de gallo for crunch and warm flour tortillas to wrap it all in.

We observed more attention to detail in a house specialty, Pollo y Camarones à la Crema. The comforting chicken and the crisp-tender medium-size shrimp (about a half-dozen) had been bathed with a creamy tequila sauce and enlivened with poblano peppers. This dish featured cilantro rice with some avocado on the side. The whole was drizzled with a charming balsamic vinegar-tamarind reduction sauce, an interesting and welcome nuance.

Manager Donohue tells us the house braised pork is among the most popular of the chef’s specialties, but one of our number opted for the Lamb Colorado ($19.95/the most expensive dish on the menu), mainly because we couldn’t recall ever having seen lamb on a Mexican restaurant menu, and we do like lamb.
This was a good-sized lamb shank, braised to fall-off-the-bone tenderness, set atop a pool of smooth, mild red enchilada-type sauce (a pleasant foil for the lamb) and scattered with  toasted almond slices. And on the side? A generous serving of sautéed julienne-sliced nopalito. In case you’re wondering, nopalito is cactus, and this version was smoky, nutty, crisp-tender, enhanced with whole-kernel corn and quite delicious. 

Xitomate Cocina Mexicana & Tequila Bar
5850 Waterloo Road, Columbia
410-750-8787
xitomate.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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