Ellicott City's La Palapa makes a good run of it. All at the same time, it operates as a family restaurant, a sports bar, a college-style happy-hour hangout and a few things in between. Mariachi bands stroll on Friday and Saturday nights, and folks take salsa lessons on Thursday night. I wouldn't think of it as a destination restaurant, but as a place to consider if you're in that area.
The big attraction here, for my money, is the patio. There aren't too many outdoor-dining options in Ellicott City, and this is a good one. It's walled-in and set back a little from Main Street, so diners don't have to shout their conversations over traffic noise. I think it would be a pleasure to come to La Palapa after a day of shopping and sightseeing and unwind on the patio with a good margarita. I wish the house margarita here were better, though; it looks as if it is concocted with some kind of limeade mix, and it tastes too sweet.
The Mexican food we tried at La Palapa was good but not great - maybe a little hit or miss. Overall, there was nothing that would ever show up in our dreams, but there was nothing we regretted, either.
In fairness, we stuck mostly to the standard fare of burritos, enchiladas and tacos, bypassing the dozen or so house specialties, things that have a more authentic sound to them, like carne asada and rainbow trout Veracruz. We might have been more adventurous, but La Palapa's logo - a mustachioed chili pepper in a sombrero, drinking a margarita, seemed like a signal for us to go a little casual here, relax and enjoy the sunshine.
The biggest hit for us was the chili Azteca, which featured impressive chunks of meat and tomato, and a rich and satisfying flavor. This was served with a piece of perfect cornbread that was so tasty we ordered it separately as a side. The biggest miss was a chicken mole from the specialties menu, which was done in by a mole sauce with a consistency and taste that was close to chocolate syrup, completely overwhelming the chili, nut and fruit flavors.
La Palapa's traditional menu is thoughtfully put together. There are more pork and steak options here than I'm used to seeing, and the prices are very fair. Regulars know to watch for the weekly specials in the restaurant and in the cantina.
Sometimes things were a little bland, as with the homemade guacamole, and sometimes, a little greasy, as with a tostada shell. Mostly everything else was kind of in between, and you can get fatigued easily. This kind of thing can happen in a Mexican restaurant when everything is plated with the same sides, and everything is covered with the same ranchero sauce or enchilada sauce.
I had to keep being reminded what it was I was about to try from my friends' plates - is this the chicken enchilada or the stuffed chile relleno? But that's more of a problem for a restaurant reviewer than friends putting together their own combination platters. I have a feeling that's what most people do here.
In addition to the patio, there's a glassed-in, indoor-outdoor seating area, and the original dining room, which looks after about 10 years to be entering an early stage of shabbiness, when sunny colors start to look bleached out. The same could be said for the adjacent cantina, although I think it's mostly a question of wear and tear on a popular spot. The service here was friendly and mostly efficient. Drinks should arrive a lot quicker than they do, though, but it's hard to assign blame for that. It could be because there's no service bartender.
There's Mexican food I like better closer to home, but not at any place with a patio. Sometimes, in summer, that's enough to tip the balance.