Sophisticated Mexican fare at El Bufalo in Canton

For The Baltimore Sun
Mostly well-executed and approachable Mexican and American food and friendly service make this Canton spot fun

For more than two decades, Canton Square has been home to some of the city's most famous Mexican food. Nacho Mama's, which opened in early 1994, has earned a longstanding reputation as a fun spot for hubcaps full of margaritas and likable, if not perfectly authentic, Mexican fare.

In 2012, Nacho Mama's got some competition when El Bufalo Tequila Bar & Kitchen opened just down the street, in the space formerly occupied by Coburn's Tavern & Grill.

El Bufalo distinguishes itself from its neighbor with a more sophisticated — and mostly well-executed — menu and a look that relies on darker colors and Day of the Dead-inspired murals. But the friendly service creates a casual vibe that fits right in on the square.

Scene & Decor When we arrived at El Bufalo around 7 on a Wednesday evening, the restaurant was nearly empty. It started to fill a bit during our meal, though most of the people who wandered in posted up at the bar for drinks, instead of at tables.

We grabbed a table near the big front windows, which gave us a nice view of the square and kept our faces in the bartender's line of vision, which proved helpful, because he was also our waiter.

Drinks We started with two spicy twists on classic cocktails: the Spicy Senorita ($11) — a jalapeno-spiked margarita — and the Angry Mojito ($12), a take on the popular rum drink.

Both were nicely mixed and well-balanced and neither was too spicy to order a second, though following the first round, we switched to Tecate lager ($3) instead.

Appetizers A trio of freshly made salsas ($6), served with a big pile of chips, was a promising start to the meal. The selection included a thick, chunky red salsa, one spicy and green option and one sweet and sharp mixture of mango and red onion. We liked all three; they would work both as a bar snack and as a prelude to a bigger meal.

The chips themselves were also a hit; we loved that they were substantial enough to scoop lots of salsa but also crunchy and well-seasoned, so they were tasty alone.

Unfortunately, our other appetizer was the biggest dud of the evening. The vuelve a la vida ($14) was billed as a tomato-forward take on ceviche, which we love when done correctly.

El Bufalo's version included shrimp, octopus and what looked to be imitation crab, tossed with avocado and cilantro, all swimming in a thin and slightly under seasoned tomato broth. The avocado was lovely and ripe, and was definitely the high point of the dish, which looked pretty but lacked zing.

Entrees El Bufalo's kitchen redeemed itself with the entrees. A plate full of mahi mahi tacos ($10) was full of fun flavors, from the thick charred tortillas to the well-seasoned fish.

The fish was a tiny bit overcooked but that didn't detract from the tacos' overall flavors, which ranged from crunchy cabbage to juicy mango salsa.

We tried to order steak frites but our waiter talked us out if it, suggesting, instead, a new steak dish that was set to debut on the menu soon. Though the richly seasoned meat — served with a creamy sauce, mushrooms, scattered scallions, thin, crunchy onion rings and garlicky mashed potatoes ($24) — was not terribly Mexican, it was both tasty and cooked nicely, just to medium rare.

Dessert During our visit, El Bufalo didn't offer any dessert, though our waiter did try to cajole us into a round of post-prandial shots. We skipped those, but did linger over another beer.

Diners with a serious sweet tooth have a tried and true option just down the street at Vaccaro's Canton location, which, on that sleepy evening, wasn't nearly as jammed as the Little Italy spot usually is.

Service With few fellow diners, we weren't surprised that our food was appropriately paced and served with good cheer from the bartender/waiter. He had the kind of welcoming attitude that encourages repeat business. The only lag of the evening happened at the end, when we were waiting for the bill. We had a few funny moments, trying to communicate to the bartender that we were finished with our beers. Finally, he realized we were ready to go, so he got us the check and we went on our way.

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El Bufalo Tequila Bar & Kitchen

Back story: Opened in 2012 in the Canton Square space that formerly housed Coburn's Tavern & Grill, El Bufalo focuses on fresh Mexican food and tasty, easy to drink cocktails.

Parking: Street parking

Signature dish: El Bufalo's homemade salsas are bright, fresh and very likable. The trio of dips includes a chunky red variety, a thin green option and a juicy, sweet mango and red onion choice, all of which pair well with chips and drinks.

TVs: 13

Where: 2921 O'Donnell St., Baltimore

Contact: 410-814-0594, elbufalobaltimore.com

Open: 4 p.m. to 11 p.m., Monday and Tuesday; 4 p.m. to 12 a.m., Wednesday and Thursday; 4 p.m. to 2 a.m., Friday; 12 p.m. to 2 a.m., Saturday and Sunday

Credit Cards: All major

Reservations: Accepted for large groups and parties

Bottom line: Mostly well-executed and approachable Mexican and American food and friendly service make this Canton spot fun.

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