With a few noticeable exceptions, restaurants in historic Ellicott City have always leaned toward the beer-and-bar-food variety -- good, homey American fare in a comfortable, old-town setting.
That's what makes the opening of the Mexican restaurant La Palapa Grill & Cantina such a welcome surprise.
Open only three weeks, La Palapa is housed on the site of the former PJ's Restaurant, which was a popular gathering place for some of the county's most influential politicos. La Palapa's owners, Gilberto Cortes and Herb Bryant, bought PJ's this summer when its owner, Pat Patterson, retired.
What a difference a few months and a spiffy renovation makes.
La Palapa boasts Mexican decor, including colorful hand-painted bar stools and portraits lining the walls, an expanded wooden outdoor deck, machines that make frozen margaritas and rum runners, and a tropical grass-hut canopy that hangs over the long, well-stocked bar.
In fact, "la palapa" is the Spanish term for the leaves of coconut trees used to make beach huts.
Cortes and Bryant met a couple of years ago and talked of opening a Mexican restaurant somewhere in Ellicott City. Cortes, who also owns El Azteca in Clarksville and Pachanga Grill in Odenton, looked at a smaller space in the historic district last year but held out for a larger one.
When the two heard that PJ's Restaurant was for sale, Cortes and Bryant -- a former bartender at Ellicott City's Mill Town Tavern -- knew they had the perfect location for a large, family-oriented cantina.
"We knew that we needed a large place because the restaurant was going to be a large operation," Cortes said. Added Bryant, "We knew we wanted to give our customers more than just burritos and tacos, so there are a lot of mainstream items with Mexican flavorings on the menu."
Cortes, who was born and raised in Mexico, and the restaurant's team of friendly, Spanish-speaking wait staff try to be attentive to customers' needs.
The children's menu starts at $1.95, and the kitchen sometimes offers "kids eat free" promotions. The menu -- a combination of authentic Mexican dishes laced with more traditional American fare -- was created to please as many palates as possible, Cortes said.
The menu has a few vegetarian items, including vegetable burritos, cheese enchiladas and bean tacos. Appetizers include Maryland crab soup and chicken Caesar salad. A crab cake sandwich and a jumbo hamburger served with french fries also make an appearance for the those not inspired to dive head-first into the rest of the Mexican menu.
Everything you would expect to find at a traditional Mexican restaurant is here: nachos, quesadillas, sizzling fajitas, chimichangas and bean burritos.
Cortes also loves to cook seafood, and the list of specials offer a number of choices from every region of Mexico, such as rainbow trout grilled with garlic butter, white wine and lime juice served over rice and pico de gallo. Saturday nights will no doubt draw patrons who come to hear live music of the alternative rock/acoustic guitar variety. Sunday brunch features a live mariachi band.
La Palapa Grill & Cantina
Where: 8307 Main St., Ellicott City, 410-465-0070.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. daily; kitchen open until 10 nightly.
Prices: Appetizers, $2.75-$6.95; entrees, $7.95-$13.95.
Credit cards: MasterCard, Visa, American Express, Diners Club.