Dining Out: Caliente Grill finds niche as local favorite in lively Annapolis Neck neighborhood

I’ve lost count of the number of Mexican and South American restaurants, and combinations thereof that have opened in our area in the past decade or so.

They are, literally, everywhere. It’s hard to go more than a mile or two any direction without encountering one.

All the big chains are here: the fast food Taco Bell, Baja Fresh, Chevy’s, Chili’s, Chipotle and On The Border to name a few. Uncle Julio’s has just taken up residence in Restaurant Park next to Westfield Annapolis mall.

Geared to the American palate? Yep. Authentic? Not so much.

Local lovers of the deeply flavored foods of our neighbors to the south have learned to seek out the small, family-owned cafes that are among the many new businesses started by the area’s Hispanic community. And there are some gems, many of them located along the Forest Drive corridor. They are casual, affordable, family-friendly and serve the dishes the owners grew up loving.

Among them is the Caliente Grill. A bright spot in what used to be a dreary strip of stores on Bay Ridge Road near Hillsmere Drive, it has doubled in size the past couple of years. Its two dining rooms and small bar are brightly decorated and welcoming.

Owners Raul and Rosanna Rodriguez keep moving and checking to be sure the serving team and kitchen are coordinated. When I first reviewed Caliente in 2016, the superb chef was the owner’s aunt, Ana Ardor.

The soul of the menu was the list of “house specialties,” highlighted by the Salvadoran dishes of the family’s heritage. Ms. Ardor has since retired, but, happily, her recipes have not. A new chef has added more Mexican-rooted dishes.

Warm, house-made tortilla chips and excellent salsa are Caliente’s calling card while you sort through the choices of appetizers, soups and salads. I was eager to revisit the top notch ceviche ($12) that opened my first visit. It was outstanding then and now. Finely chopped tilapia, shrimp, calamari and octopus are marinated in fresh lemon juice, spices, and diced onions, tomatoes and cilantro, and served ice cold. It was a tart and refreshing stage setter for the Latin American food.

The star of their soup list is mariscada, a rich broth crammed with fresh fish, clams, mussels, shrimp and crab. It’s available in two sizes: a bowl and small bowl. Beware. This rich hearty soup is easily a meal in itself. Even my small bowl at $9 was no appetizer. The shrimp were in their shells, as were the clams and mussels. You’ll need time and utensils to fully enjoy mariscada.

My entrée order of carne asada ($14), a grilled steak with rice and steamed vegetables included grilled chorizo, the Latin version of the Spanish sausage. The menu led me to expect flank steak, but a thin, marinated rib steak arrived in its place. Flavorful it was, tender it was not. Still, it was a homey, satisfying platter.

Beef dishes were the choices of most of our party of four. Parrillada caliente ($16) combined pieces of steak, chicken and pork sautéed and served on a bed of yucca with hot off the grill sweet peppers and onions topped with a pico de gallo sauce. It and a platter of chicken and shrimp fajitas ($15), served sizzling, as they should be, with its warm soft tortilla sidekick deserve high marks.

Caliente’s food can cause the diner to work up a significant thirst. The bar conjures an enviable margarita among its cocktails. Latin American beers are available, and I could only wish the wine list took advantage of the many Central American vintages that would go so well with their menu.

Desserts include a fine flan, tres leches and nuegados, a Salvadoran treat that is basically a syrup-enriched dumpling. Sounds simple, but don’t knock it.

Caliente clearly has found a niche as a local favorite in this lively Annapolis Neck neighborhood.

Caliente Grill

WHERE: 907 Bay Ridge Road, Annapolis

PHONE: 410-626-1444

WEBSITE: calientegrillannapolis.com

HOURS: Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Friday and Sunday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Saturday, 11 a.m.-midnight

FIRST COURSES: $4 - $23

ENTREES: $8- $19

CREDIT CARDS: All major cards

RESERVATIONS: Accepted

ACCESSIBILITY: Yes

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