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Salsa Grill pleases with tasty paella

Woodlawn, I'm discovering, holds many culinary surprises. Add to the list the Salsa Grill, an unpretentious and friendly restaurant that offers interesting Peruvian, Caribbean and Cuban dishes.

In a strip mall next to a tax-preparation outlet, Salsa Grill's narrow space is dominated by a long open kitchen. Posters touting various kinds of peppers serve as the main decoration. We grabbed a booth near the kitchen and wolfed down an order of nothing-special chips and salsa ($4) while our order was prepared.

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Service was friendly and quick, and I was impressed when one of the cooks came running out to the car with salads that he had left out of our bags.

Overall, we were pleased with the food, although a couple of items were deficient, particularly given the slightly elevated prices being charged.

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For appetizer, the jerk wings ($6.75) were deep-fried chicken parts that were then dusted with peppery spices. The spices, though, seemed too much like an afterthought.

The spinach empanadas ($8.25) were good pastry pockets filled with ground beef, boiled egg bits, cilantro and other spices. The papa rellena combo ($8.50) was, it turned out, a tasty Caribbean version of shepherd's pie - mashed potatoes encasing spicy ground beef. A chicken tamale ($5.75) featured ground corn steamed in cornstalks, but included, inexplicably, an unpitted olive.

Of our three main dishes, the best by far was the Caribbean paella ($13.95), one of the best versions of the familiar dish I have ever tried - spicy chunks of chicken nestled in among salty sausage, shrimp, yellow rice and vegetables. It would be worth a trip back to Salsa Grill for the paella alone.

Costillas de puerco - pork ribs ($10.95) - were tender and tasty, but the meat was too fatty. And camarones al ajo (shrimp and pasta for $14.95) was a mess - too gooey and not nearly spicy enough.

We passed on the restaurant's meager dessert offerings: chocolate or strawberry roll cake ($3.50).

Salsa Grill is on the north side of Security Boulevard, just inside the Beltway. There's plenty of parking out front.

Salsa Grill

Food: ** 1/2

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Service: *** 1/2

Waiting area: ***

Parking: ***

Where: 6644 Security Blvd., Woodlawn

Phone: 410-265-5552

Hours: 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday to Thursday; 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday

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Prices: Caribbean, Peruvian and Cuban appetizers and entrees, $4 to $14.95; credit cards accepted

Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *


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