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Barcocina in Fells Point
(Karl Merton Ferron, Baltimore Sun)

From its waterfront perch at the corner of Thames Street and Broadway, Barcocina might occupy the most enviable real estate in all of Baltimore. With views of the harbor on one side and historic Fells Point on the other, the restaurant provides a glimpse of Baltimore at its most attractive.

With those vistas and that central location, Barcocina's owners would have been forgiven for playing it safe in the kitchen, sticking with crab cakes and bar food. Instead, the restaurant has adopted a modern approach to Mexican food, serving creative twists on familiar dishes like tacos and seviche. Those dishes aren't always perfect, but they're never boring.

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Even on a Tuesday evening, Barcocina was crowded, but the restaurant's high wood ceilings made it feel large and open. It's a festive place with ample space for diners and happy-hour drinkers.

Barcocina's ambitious cocktail menu was the first clue that it wasn't just another Fells Point bar or casual Mexican joint. A watermelon-infused vodka cocktail, available from a tap, was well-balanced; a blood-orange crush was just sweet enough.

Our table was divided, however, on the blackberry sangria. Made with Malbec and served sans fruit, it wasn't as sweet as most versions of the drink. Some diners will like that; others won't.

Barcocina offers a handful of entrées, but as our waitress explained, the menu is full of small plates designed for sharing.

We loved the Barcocina guacamole, which featured excellent, fresh guacamole, shredded white cheese and a sauce of balsamic vinegar, lime and pasilla chili. We were initially skeptical about the sauce, but its sweet-tart flavor brought out the best in the avocado.

We were equally taken with two types of tacos. The first, stuffed with gorgeous sashimi tuna, was topped with papaya and onion sprouts for crunch, mild yuzu crema and kimchi salsa that added a hint of funk.

Tacos stuffed with braised pork shoulder, apple salsa and chipotle mustard, then topped with lime crema, were hearty and flavorful.

We were less enamored with an under-seasoned dish of corn salsa and an ambitious but odd scallop seviche. The scallop, sliced thin, was fresh and well-seasoned. Its pairing, though, left us puzzled.

A bed of red quinoa added interesting texture, but a vanilla-scented sauce was billed as including habanero, so we were surprised by its lack of heat. A topping of ancho-dusted popcorn provided smoky flavor, but the popcorn was slightly stale. It was probably only an hour old, but that time in the humid kitchen was enough to steal its snap. Still, the dish was thoughtful and unusual. We appreciated that.

Dessert was more of a pick-me-up. Strawberry shortcake, made with tequila-scented strawberries, creamy ice cream and, instead of shortcake, doughnuts, was both sweetly satisfying and intriguing.

The Barcocina waitstaff, clad in blue-and-white-checked shirts, was friendly, though the pacing wasn't perfect. Early on, our waitress was very attentive and all of our food arrived quickly -- maybe too quickly.

Once it did arrive, the pace slowed considerably. Our waitress didn't forget us, but she didn't check in frequently enough. We had to hunt her down when we wanted dessert and again when we needed our check.

There was a bit of excitement when a storm rolled through Fells Point, driving outdoor diners inside. The staff, to their credit, handled the shift with aplomb, finding new tables for the displaced diners and gathering scattered napkins and silverware.

With everyone inside, the volume cranked up a notch, and it was easy to imagine how Barcocina will feel during the colder months. Even when the harbor breezes are chilly, the restaurant will be warm, fun and -- most important -- interesting.

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AT A GLANCE

The vibe:

Barcocina is laid-back and fun -- but definitely a scene. The crowd is attractive and having a blast. The space, with its open, nautical design and large windows with a view of the harbor, provides a gorgeous backdrop.

You'll fit in wearing:

Barcocina's crowd is a mix of post-work happy-hour warriors and stylish diners with casual-cool looks.

Don't miss:

The Barcocina guacamole is fresh, traditional guacamole with a slight twist. A drizzle of tart and slightly spicy sauce made with lime, balsamic vinegar and pasilla chili adds likable brightness to the avocado, garlic and onion mash.

Best for kids:

In the evening, Barcocina's lively Fells Point location is probably best for adults, though kids will enjoy the salsas, guacamole and tacos, none of which are overly spicy. There is also a children's menu available upon request.

Reservations:

Accepted.

Price range:

Appetizers, salsas and dips: $7-$16. Tacos, salads, sandwiches and entrées: $10-$35.

Parking:

Metered street parking or nearby lots and garages.

Barcocina

1629 Thames St., Fells Point

410-563-8800

barcocina.com

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