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Restaurant adds spice to the local mix

Thrust into the limelight rebuilding a war-torn country, Afghan President Hamid Karzai has no time to worry about what's on the menu in restaurants in Kabul, much less Baltimore. He leaves that to his brothers Mahmood and Qayum.

In April, Qayum opened his third restaurant in Baltimore, b in Bolton Hill. Now it's younger brother Mahmood's turn.

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The Howard County resident recently opened a south-of-the-border-themed restaurant in Baltimore's Mount Vernon district near Qayum's Tapas Teatro and the Helmand.

Mahmood's new venture, Tampico Mexican Grill, adds a spicy touch to the midtown restaurant scene with a seafood-rich menu and fresh fruit drinks.

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Originally scheduled to open last year, the restaurant experienced its share of leasing and contractor delays. Meanwhile, Mahmood kept busy overseeing other restaurants in San Francisco and Boston -and supporting humanitarian efforts in Afghanistan. While Qayum leads a group focused on building democracy and education, Mahmood participates in several organizations, such as the Afghan American Chamber of Commerce, that champion the rebirth and growth of Afghanistan's private sector.

Mahmood is proud of his younger brother's role in rebuilding their homeland. "Hamid loves food, but his passion is politics," he says.

Mahmood says it took him time to learn that he wanted to be a restaurant owner.

"As a young boy, I wanted to be a pilot, then a doctor. But after I immigrated to America in 1976 and started working in restaurants, I knew this was my calling. I love good food and satisfying customers," he says.

After a partnership with Qayum at the now closed Helmand in Chicago, Mahmood opened another Helmand in San Francisco in 1989 with his wife Wazhma, whom he describes as "one of the best Afghan cooks in America."

With a unique decor of ceremonial Afghan wedding dresses, native pottery and paintings, the San Francisco restaurant soon garnered accolades for elegant service, large portions and well-spiced specialties like leek raviolis, and leg of lamb with seasoned rice.

While still residing in California, Mahmood and Wazhma opened a second Helmand in Cambridge in 1994. But when the couple visited Boston, they missed the spicy Mexican food from San Francisco's Mission District and East Bay. Two years later they opened Viva Burrito in downtown Boston, a small Tex-Mex cantina serving beer and hearty burritos.

Two years ago, the Karzais moved to Glenwood and began searching for Mexican fare.

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"Maybe we like Mexican food so much because of a significant ingredient bond. Enchilada sauce, salsas and many other Mexican specialties contain lots of ground cumin seed. Like many Afghan dishes, chalaw rice casserole is baked with cumin seeds, infusing it with wonderful spicy nuances," says Mahmood.

In Washington, they discovered Lauriol Plaza, now their favorite East Coast Tex-Mex restaurant. Soon after, says Mahmood, "We decided our new restaurant in Baltimore would be Mexican with lots of seafood. We enjoy visiting the Gulf Coast of Mexico where fish is cooked right at the dock."

Named after a Gulf Coast town near Veracruz, Tampico Mexican Grill offers a more extensive menu than the Karzais' Boston venture. The historic North Charles Street location near the Belvedere Hotel is also larger: 110 seats inside, 20 in the back patio and a full bar seating 14.

Mahmood regards women as the best chefs, especially in Afghanistan where cooking skills are handed down from mother to daughter. His chef at Tampico is Malena Santillan, formerly a cook at the Babalu Grill.

The menu features both regional specialties and familiar fare. Though some haute dishes are offered, they are reasonably priced. Small plates and appetizers such as gambas al ajillo, shrimp with garlic and tomato concasse finished with dry sherry, are $7.95 or less.

The list of entrees - from organic chicken in mole sauce (pollo Oaxaca) to shrimp with chile sauce (pipian de camarones) and chile-lime marinated red snapper - tops out at $12.95.

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Even the burritos sport a bayside demeanor. In the grilled seafood rendition, red snapper, bay scallops, grilled shrimp, rice, white beans and salsa fresca nestle in a large flour tortilla dressed with Mexican tomato sauce.

The desserts, though thoroughly Mexican, hark back to Afghan dishes. Roasted pumpkin is served as a savory dish at the Helmand; at Tampico Mexican Grill, it's scooped up Latino-style with vanilla ice cream as a sweet treat. The creamy rice pudding is dotted with pistachios at the Helmand but harbors almonds here.

The decor evokes mariachi music and festivity with terra-cotta walls and brightly colored teal, yellow and beige tile. Tall ceilings, a fireplace, an open kitchen, mission-style chairs with Mexican-inspired upholstery and oak tables complete the south-of-the-border look. Near the entrance, the long, earth-toned granite bar with cherry-wood cabinets sets the tone for a fun-filled Mexican experience.

"We're stocking the bar with a full line of tequilas and fresh produce. We squeeze fresh orange, apple and carrot juices to order. Whatever seasonal fruit that I can get my hands on - from pomegranates to mangoes and kiwi - will be offered as a margarita," says Mahmood. "But only after Wazhma, the bartender and the chef taste it."

Tampico Mexican Grill

Where: 1200 N. Charles St.

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Phone: 410-837-9999

Hours: 5 p.m. to midnight every day

Chile-Lime Marinated Red Snapper With Cumin-Vegetable Rice and Salsa Verde

Serves 6

FISH:

six 7-ounce red snapper fillets

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juice of 4 limes (about 1/2 cup)

2 ounces dark chile powder

1 1/4 cup canola oil (divided use)

CUMIN-VEGETABLE RICE:

2 tablespoons canola oil

2 tablespoons garlic, minced

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1/4 cup carrot, minced

1/4 cup celery, minced

4 scallions, thinly sliced

1 red bell pepper, finely diced

2 ounces cumin powder

2 cups Texmati rice (a cross between basmati and long-grain rice; substitute long-grain rice)

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2 tablespoons salt

4 cups cold water

SALSA VERDE:

1/2 pound tomatillos (husks removed), rinsed

2 serrano chiles (or to taste), chopped

1/2 cup loosely packed cilantro, chopped

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1 large clove garlic, chopped

salt

To make the fish: Place the red snapper fillets in a plastic container. Pour lime juice over the fillets. Sprinkle with chile powder. Pour 1 cup oil over the fillets and marinate in the refrigerator for at least 8 hours.

For the rice: In a medium saucepan, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the vegetables and cook about 3 minutes until soft but not browned. Add the cumin, rice, salt and water. Bring to a boil, then cover and cook until rice is done, about 20 minutes.

To make the salsa verde: Put tomatillos in a small saucepan and cover with water. Bring to a boil, then simmer about 10 minutes until soft but not falling apart. Drain and reserve 1/4 cup of the cooking liquid. Put the reserved cooking liquid into a food processor with the chiles, cilantro and garlic. Blend briefly until almost smooth. Add the tomatillos in small batches and blend briefly after each addition. The sauce should have a rough-textured appearance. Season with salt.

To assemble: In a hot skillet heat the remaining 1/4 cup canola oil. Add red snapper fillets. Cook for about 4 minutes on each side. Place a serving of rice in the center of the plate, put the snapper on top, and spoon the salsa verde around the edges of the rice.

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-- Tampico Mexican Grill

Gambas al Ajillo (Prawns in Garlic Sauce)

Serves 6

1 1/2 pounds fresh or frozen shrimp (about 30 pieces, 21 to 25 count per pound)

2 ounces olive oil

salt and pepper to taste

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2 tablespoons chopped garlic

4 plum tomatoes, seeded and chopped (about 1 cup)

1 cup dry sherry

4 tablespoons unsalted butter

6 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped

Thaw shrimp if frozen. Peel and devein shrimp, leaving tails intact. Rinse shrimp; pat dry with paper towels. Set aside.

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In a large skillet, heat olive oil over medium-high heat until the oil just begins to smoke.

Season shrimp with salt and pepper and place in the pan in a single layer. If the pan is not large enough to hold all the shrimp, divide the shrimp into two batches. Sear on one side only.

When all the shrimp are seared on one side, place all the shrimp back in the pan, turned over with seared side up. Add the garlic and tomatoes. Cook and stir about 30 seconds.

Add the sherry to the pan to deglaze remaining bits from the shrimp mixture. Swirl in the butter, 1 tablespoon at a time. Taste the sauce and adjust seasoning with salt and pepper.

To serve, top with parsley.

- Tampico Mexican Grill


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