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Tostadas trump tacos at Johnny Sanchez in the Horseshoe Casino

There is no Johnny Sanchez. At least there's no Johnny Sanchez affiliated with the intriguing upscale taqueria at the new Horseshoe Casino Baltimore.

Johnny Sanchez is a mashed-up name representing two high-caliber chefs, John Besh and Aaron Sanchez, who collaborated on the restaurant's concept and menu.

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Besh, based in New Orleans, is the owner of nine restaurants, including his flagship, August. Sanchez has restaurants in Kansas and Connecticut, with another opening soon in New York City. The two became friends while competing on the show "The Next Iron Chef" and decided to open a restaurant together.

The setting for their collaboration is a refreshingly understated, high-ceilinged dining room just off the casino's main floor. The palette is neutral, with splashes of red. Slatted screens separate the main dining room from the bar, which abuts the main casino floor.

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The dining room is nice and quiet. And you'll want to settle in with a bowl of wonderfully creamy guacamole, flavored with serrano chilies, and a serving of eight tightly packed, hot little empanadas stuffed with corn, potato, queso fresco and the Mexican delicacy huitlacoche.

Then the real fun starts. Of the menu's basic sections — appetizers, tostadas, tacos and entrees —the tostadas are the undisputed star.

Almost anything goes on a tostada at Johnny Sanchez. They come two to an order and the combinations are delicious, fascinating and very pretty. Strips of pickled red onion and avocado rest atop ruby hunks of fire-seared yellowtail; shards of roasted pumpkin are dotted with pomegranate seeds and sprinkled with snowy grilled queso; the ivory crab meat on the blue crab tostada is sprinkled with powdered harissa, a red condiment native to North African cuisine.

Other versions — there are 10 in all — feature crispy fried oysters, octopus, tuna belly and cactus salad, which sound like things that belong on a tostada. Others, like shrimp ceviche with coconut and lemon grass, sound outlandish.

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It all works, though. Besh has described the tostada's role at Johnny Sanchez as similar to that of rice at a sushi bar — a foundation for experimentation and design. The tostadas are intense, beautiful and brilliant, and they feel like they're the real payoff of this collaboration.

By contrast, the tacos feel like they're still being tinkered with. The presentation has changed since an early, casual visit, when they were inserted into metal holders. Now they're bundled together with a pointy stick. They were sold by the threesome when we visited, but the menu is changing. The tacos will now be sold individually. There are good choices, such as crispy Gulf shrimp with chili mayonnaise and beef barbacoa with a tomato-guajillo chili sauce. But roast suckling pig tacos are done in by a clumsy grilled pineapple salsa, and the burrata inserted into a squash-blossom taco just makes the whole taco mushy. The tortillas generally need another few seconds on the griddle, too.

There are a handful of entrees on the menu. The braised goat stew known as birria gets a fine turn here, with mild, pleasant favor to the meat and a remarkable clarity to the stew's juices. The pleasure of an arroz con pollo dish comes from the puffed rice that Besh and Sanchez perfected for this homespun version.

And after the playfulness, there's unexpected pleasure in an old standby, a slow-cooked chicken enchilada, wrapped tightly, served with a chocolately mole sauce and fresh cotija cheese.

At the end, there is a small dessert selection, designed by Kelly Fields, the pastry chef at August. The phenomenally good goat cheese flan was intensely creamy. A coconut tres leches cake, served with coconut ice cream and toasted coconut, was spongy, rich and wonderful.

This place is pretty darn charming. And if the tacos were a letdown, the overall results are very encouraging.

Johnny Sanchez, you may not be perfect, but you're my kind of guy.

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