Sometimes, when I’m traveling on Kent Island, I think of William Claiborne who ran an Indian trading post there in 1631 - three years before Lord Baltimore’s people arrived on a small island in the Potomac on March 25, 1634, the event we mark every Maryland Day.
I wonder what Will Claiborne would think of today’s developed Kent Island. Would he lament the loss of the view? Or, would Claiborne welcome the modern conveniences? After all, he might have liked a second shirt, and hardtack and salt beef can be pretty boring.
We modern day explorers are more fortunate in our dining choices.
Bringing their version of southern Mexican cuisine from owner Martin Hernandez’ native Oaxaca region to our island neighbor is the El Jefe Mexican Kitchen and Tequila Bar. Our only challenge is navigating the concrete jungle to find it. I wonder how many beaver furs Will Claiborne would have traded for a GPS?
Three of us amigas gathered there recently for a midweek meet-up. We weren’t the only ones: the tables were full and every seat was taken at the long bar on the cantina side. El Jefe’s new pool room, ringed with seven pool tables and big-screen TVs, was also jumping.
Not so much on the dining side. That might have told us something.
Since two of us arrived in tandem, we decided to have a drink, purely for research purposes, while waiting for our third. Good thing, because the house margarita was really good: limey and not too sweet, thanks to a house made simple syrup with a splash of OJ. But, the fun doesn’t stop there. In tequilas alone, there are 32 different options.
To achieve the proper fiesta spirit, I need chips, salsa and guacamole alongside my margarita.
The tortilla chips arrived warm and the homemade salsa cold in its own little carafe with a mini molcajete for serving. Muy agradable! As was the service – helpful and attentive.
As the chips are not prepared in a dedicated fryer, our gluten-free amiga could not partake. However, she is so accustomed to this slight that she brings her own. Restaurateurs, this is an opportunity to reach across the gluten divide!
We gave the tomato-studded guac a "three-out-of-three chips" rating. It was fresh and creamy, redolent with onion, cilantro and fresh lime juice, with a nice jalapeno kick.
We could have stayed right there, extending our happy hour in the bright and cheerful cantina. However, we crossed over to the dining side, into a different land.
We sat awhile, unnoticed, until we flagged down a server for menus. We thought we’d mix it up - one fish, one steak, one chicken dish - and share bites and commentary. Too bad we didn’t try the carnitas, which I later learned is a signature dish.
The diner who ordered the "spicy Mexican fish" ($14.99) had to fish around in the puddle of mildly cheesy white sauce to find the small piece of white fish, but she never found any spices. Slices of zucchini and mushroom provided color and texture, but overall the dish, and the side of refried beans, were rather tasteless.
Gluten-free, vegetarian and "hot" dishes are marked on the menu, and our GF gal ordered the "super tacos" with chicken ($11.99) in three double-wrapped corn tortillas, which she pronounced filling but unexciting. Mounds of pico, guac and sour cream came alongside.
Rice is noted as "not gluten free," so she was offered a double order of black beans instead. The rice came anyway, and we could only attribute its non-GF status to its orangey color. Taste-wise, there was no explaining it. The black beans, however, usually a filler in my book, had the hearty taste of a good quality simmering stock behind them.
My carne asada skirt steak ($13.99) was thin, tender and tasty enough. I also got a helping of those flavorful black beans and enjoyed the cold counterpoint of a fresh green salad topped with chunks of avocado, tomato and sliced jalapenos with a nice homemade cilantro ranch dressing.
I would like to have tried the desserts – suddenly I’m hooked on tres leches – but it was not to be. Again, we had trouble finding our server, even though the dining side was not busy on a Wednesday night.
In summary: El Jefe is a fun, casual place to meet friends after work – there’s a $6 happy hour menu all day every day in the cantina. But there’s room for improvement on the dining side.
Unlike Will Claiborne, we have a plethora of dining options on and around Kent Island. We may not have to brave the elements, or risk a run-in with pirates like he did, but we do have to navigate the Bay Bridge. We modern-day dining adventurers can only hope the meal is worth the trip.
El Jefe Mexican Kitchen & Tequila Bar
WHERE: 1235 Shopping Center Road, Stevensville
HOURS: Sunday through Thursday: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday: 11 a.m. to 12 a.m.
HEAD CHEF: Greg Gallagher
LUNCH: daily lunch menu $7.99
DINNER: soup, salad, sandwiches, $5 to $12; entrees $9 to $20; Happy Hour is all day every day in the cantina, $6 menu
RESERVATIONS: Accepted but not required
CREDIT CARDS: All Major Cards except American Express