Sometimes a little thing shows a restaurant's quality.
For me, during a recent dinner at Rivera's, that thing was the crispy, perfectly charred edges of a grilled seafood quesadilla appetizer. Those crackly corners in a quesadilla stuffed with gooey cheese and nuggets of shrimp told me that Rivera's is more than the average bean-and-cheese-slinging Tex-Mex joint.
The family-owned restaurant, in a Severna Park shopping strip, is warm and welcoming, with an excellent and extensive menu. Of course, it has the basic tacos, enchiladas and burritos, but there are other items, too, ranging from blackened tuna to Mexican beef tips and garlic shrimp. A children's menu even has burgers and fries.
Owner Ed Rivera said vegetarian dishes make up a third of his business. These include a burrito stuffed with avocado, spinach and black beans; a tostada with broccoli or spinach; and enchiladas with artichokes.
Not that meat-eaters are neglected. They have dozens of choices, including the beef and potato burrito, the grilled steak burrito and the steak ranchero. But Rivera, who earned his Tex-Mex stripes in his hometown of San Antonio, Texas, told me beef dishes haven't been selling well since that famous mad cow stumbled into the headlines. Undaunted, he's now adding a low-carb section to his menu, he said.
With its cozy wooden booths, decorative pottery, rich color scheme and a vibrant seaside mural dominating one wall, Rivera's isn't hip or fancy - just comfortable. It's like your favorite neighborhood restaurant, except the food makes it worth a drive. The service is sweet and friendly. Several Rivera family members work there. Our server was charmingly apologetic when he told us the kitchen was out of artichokes for an entree and, later, that no flan was available that night.
The high standards in the kitchen were apparent immediately. Our drink orders were taken before we even hit our seats, and the chips and salsa materialized soon after. The chips were warm and greaseless, and the salsa boasted an impressive little kick. We also ordered some guacamole, and so with each chip we faced the rather pleasant chore of choosing where to dip it - sassy salsa or creamy, rich guac, spiked with savory little chunks of tomato and onion.
For appetizers, we had that fantastic quesadilla along with a Southwest egg roll, a rolled, lightly fried tortilla filled with spinach, black beans, corn and very fresh shredded chicken, which arrived with a small bowl of ranch dressing.
The main courses kept to the same high standards. The mushrooms in a portobello enchilada were meaty and nicely marinated, and the spinach and tomatoes in the vegetarian Jody's Burrito were wonderfully fresh.
A Mexican combo was a nice way to try several items. It included two cheese enchiladas and one chicken enchilada, all bathed in a rich red sauce and topped with cheese; a corn taco stuffed with shredded, savory chicken; and a soft taco filled with pot-roastlike chunks of beef.
With each entree, diners choose two sides from a long list. The Mexican cabbage was a real treat, chunks of vegetables stewed in a light tomato sauce until sweet and soft, but the refried beans were great, too. But everything we tried, including Mexican corn, Spanish rice and pinto beans, was terrific.
The dessert menu, recited by our server, wasn't long. We tried the fried ice cream, which was essentially a scoop with a crackly coating and a dousing of chocolate syrup; and an enormous sundae with whipped cream, a fried tortilla and apple-pie filling. When we complained that the tortilla sundae was too large, the server just smiled and said we never asked the size, we just asked if it was good. And it was.
Where: 594 Benfield Road, Severna Park
Open: Lunch and dinner Tuesday through Saturday, dinner Saturday and Sunday, closed Monday
Credit cards: MC, V
Prices: Appetizers $4.25-$10.95, entrees $8.95-$19.95
Food: *** 1/2
Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *