APPETIZERS are dangerous things. You order some to tide you over until the main course arrives, and when it does, you're well on your way to being full.
But don't let that stop you from getting any; that's what doggie bags are for. If you must exert some sort of control, narrow the choice down to one per table. At Senor Tucan's, that one should be plantano Venezolano, a tender, ripe plantain sliced down the middle, then smothered in melted Monterey Jack and mozzarella cheeses. It sounds simple enough, a typical dish from around Acapulco. Yet it far exceeded more complex items on the substantial menu.
Tucan's is a bright, new Mexican-Latin American restaurant in Ellicott City owned by Francisca Cortes, who also owns El Azteca in Clarksville. She's focused mainly on standards such as tacos and fajitas but also offers a few things that typically aren't served in Mexican-Latin American restaurants around Baltimore. The results range from very tasty to bland, not a word usually used to describe food from this region of the world.
Although the guacamole seemed to have the right ingredients, it lacked much flavor and did not do proper justice to the melt-in-your-mouth tortilla chips that accompanied the appetizer.
Our entrees were uneven as well. One bite of the chicken mole, a wonderful Oaxacan dish famous for its dark brown sauce made of six chilies, nuts, fruits and chocolate, packed so much spice that it masked the taste of everything else and made me gulp a half-glass of water afterward.
Some kind of zesty moisture, however, could have gone a long way in the tacos al carbon with chicken breasts; they were dry and flavorless. With the grilled rainbow trout prepared Veracruz style, a strong fishy taste hurt an otherwise well-textured sauce of diced tomatoes, capers, olives, onions and white wine.
Popusas Salvadorenas scored high, although we were too full to finish our huge serving. But the soft maza (corn) pancakes filled with mozzarella cheese and shredded pork reheated well the next day, right down to the subtle corn flavor in the thick pancake.
Desserts, like appetizers, are dangerous things, but for different reasons - usually having to do with very high fat content. And Tucan's offerings are no exception to this. Our group managed to polish off a mound of fried ice cream encrusted with cornflakes, coconut shavings and cinnamon; we even ate the crispy edible bowl. Less exotic but just as good were sopaipillas, small wedges of fried dough drizzled with honey.
Excessive sweetness wrecked a wiggling dab of flan, as well as a frozen strawberry margarita. Tucan's classic margarita - made with lime juice and served on the rocks in a salt-rimmed glass - was fine, however.
Cortes has done a great job of turning a basic roadside building into a festive place. That she is fond of parrots is obvious from the many painted birds that hang from the ceiling on their perches. Colorful Mexican paintings adorn the walls, and plants fill the windowsills.
The Spanish background music was a bit loud (especially in the restrooms), but our waitress turned it down after we complained.
Mexican-Latin American eateries seem to be plentiful around here. What sets Tucan's apart from the rest are its sparkling atmosphere and Cortes' willingness to mix the dishes we've come to expect with a few unexpected treats from south of the border.
10291 Baltimore National
Pike, Ellicott City
Open: For lunch and dinner daily
Prices: Appetizers $1.95 to $6.95; entrees $4.25 to $14.95
Credit cards: All major cards
Atmosphere: ** 1/2