Lunch review: El Nayar

My introduction to Mexican food was a little place in the Midwest called Piedras Negras. The hole-in-the-wall space, ratty decor, tinny mariachi riffs cranked out of an old juke box and flies buzzing bowls of chunky green jalapeno salsa made the restaurant an exotic treat. Only the sparsest of commercial English was spoken. But no matter, the kitchen did all the talking. Piedras Negras spoiled me and, outside of El Paso, Texas, I've never found its equal and was always careful not to judge lesser Mexican joints by the smoggy yellow light of Piedras Negras.

12 p.m. My dining companion and I enter El Nayar's Catonsville location at 801 Frederick Road. An 8-by-11-inch sign on the door announces BYOB, no charge. The modest storefront interior is dominated by a counter dividing the dining areas. We drift to the side lined by glossy brown wooden booths, which turn out to be more comfortable than they appear.

The place looks like it might have been decorated by one of my Irish relatives after checking out a Golden Book on Mexican culture. A couple small straw sombreros hang over a brace of stubby looking metal boxes that we later learn contain the buffet offerings. Brick and tile and rough-hewn ceiling beams gently clash with a smattering of colors painted on the various walls and doors. I was warming to the place. No frills here. They must concentrate all their energies on the menu.

12:05 p.m. The young woman who brought the chips and salsa takes our orders. My dining companion orders the buffet at $9.95. I go with the beef enchilada plate for $10 and a fish taco for $2.59.

Our first taste is promising. The peppery fire and deep red of the salsa make the blandness of the ordinary off-the-shelf chips seem wise — no interference with the flaming sauce.

12:10 p.m. Our server brings a plate of three flour tortillas (you have the option of corn or flour) for the buffet order and I tell my dining companion to go ahead without me. But minutes later the enchiladas and fish taco are set before me.

The buffet tortillas are small. I guess 5 inches in diameter. There are only three of them, but you can ask for more. The summation of my buffet-eating companion's review of her fajitas, taco, breaded fish, and quesadillas was expressed with a shrug and an "It's OK." The one item that gets minor raves is the guacamole.

My enchiladas have corn tortillas, no larger than the flour ones, that make for rather brief enchiladas. They are dipped in huajillo sauce and it looks like I might be in for some serious heat. Instead, they are surprisingly juicy and the shredded beef is tender and moist; but they are practically bland. I ask for a refill of our salsa bowl so I can add some zip to the enchiladas. That costs me 75 cents for another 3 or so ounces.

The fish taco consists of crispy breaded fish laid on an open flour tortilla with a couple of cucumber slices and a lime wedge. A side of diced veggies serves as a sort of salsa. I like the crispy breading, am surprised by the fishy smell and otherwise find the taco oddly plain.

Rather than beans or rice, the enchilada comes with a salad. Mine consists of brown-edged lettuce, a few half rings of onion, a tomato wedge and a packet of dressing.

12:32 p.m. Judging by our experience, El Nayar's distinction, and aside from the lettuce, is that it lacks distinction. Its fare is definitely a departure from the chains, but I can think of at least two chains I'm not particularly crazy about that I'd still pick over El Nayar, even if they shoot for a toned down Mexican flavor profile. El Nayar seems bent on avoiding any profile at all.

12:41 p.m. If you're in a rush, you can turn around a lunch here in no time. But aside from its salsa and guacamole, El Nayar pretty much flat-lined. An interesting stop, but not one I'm likely to make again.

El Nayar

Where: 801 Frederick Road, Catonsville

Contact: 410-788-8198;

Lunch Hours: 11 a.m.-4 p.m.

Lunch entrees: $9-11

Food: ✭✭

Service: ✭✭1/2

Atmosphere: ✭✭

[Key: Outstanding: ✭✭✭✭; Good: ✭✭✭; Fair: ✭✭ or Uneven:; Poor:✭]

Dining time 41 minutes