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Free Range

El Nayar

Crossover Mexican restaurant looks like fast food, tastes like home cooking

Photo: Sam Holden, License: N/A

Sam Holden


El Nayar

801 Frederick Road, [410] 788-8198, elnayarusa.com

More at weekly.citypaper.com

There’s little to prepare the uninitiated for the simple pleasure that is Catonsville’s El Nayar. Housed in a nondescript space, the restaurant could be mistaken for a fast-food joint, one of those “upscale” McDonald’s that turns up in tony communities from time to time. Inside, a cold case flanks the register at the front counter, and on a Saturday night, no employee looks older than 20. Wooden booths and tables fill the dining room, and the squash-colored walls are devoid of much decoration save one television tuned to European fútbol. And tucked among the chimichangas and chiles relleno on the laminated menus are mild anomalies like pork wings (described by a server as being similar to ribs) and a jalapeño cheeseburger. Is this just a local version of Chi-Chi’s, you wonder?

Thankfully, no.

“Deceptively good” is how one of my dining companions characterized dinner at El Nayar a few days after our visit, and it turns out to be an apt description. The food is very fresh and balances the line between regional Mexican and Mexican that many Americans will eat—thus the cactus salad and ceviche and the “cheesy cheese enchiladas” and fajita veggie wrap. This may disappoint some diners looking for an “authentic” Mexican experience, but the members of the Flores family, who own the restaurant (and do the cooking—that’s matriarch Maria in the kitchen on this Saturday night), know their audience, and there are enough seafood offerings from the family’s native Nayarit (a west-central state on Mexico’s Pacific coast) to make El Nayar stand out from other local Mexican restaurants.

Take the mini-shrimp tostadas ($6.99), where five fat, pink shrimp recline like voluptuous odalisques on individual tortilla chips slathered with guacamole. There’s a kick of spice in the mix, a sexy flash in what could be a fleshy but bland combination that turns out to be neither. El Nayar also makes a fine ceviche ($11.99), where shrimp and crab share a lime bath with a fine dice of cucumber, tomato, and onion. This dish, of course, demands freshness, which the kitchen delivers, but Flores is also cognizant of not overcooking the seafood in citrus. If the ceviche is good, it’s hard not to trust her with the rest of the menu, and a side order of chicken tamales ($2.09 each), bundles of moist chicken wrapped in light, crumbly cornmeal dough, proves the ceviche is no fluke.

One of the most appealing things about El Nayar is the understated quality of the food. A monster of a chimichanga ($9.99 a la carte) arrives browned and looking like a heart attack on a plate. But huge as it is, it’s not greasy. Nor is it smothered with unidentifiable sauces, or stuffed to bursting with every filling available. Just a drizzle of crema decorates the tortilla crust, and carnitas (shredded pork) melds with rice and onions to provide a savory filling. It’s surprisingly good topped with the accompanying guacamole, and impossible to finish in one sitting.

Supreme enchiladas ($13.99, platter) also forgo flashy for clean flavors. The carne asada, cubed and nicely charred, plays nicely with a mild red huajillo sauce, and the plate comes heaping with refried beans, rice, guacamole, and a little shredded salad (the restaurant also offers chicken and barbacoa as fillings).

As noted, seafood shows up in many incarnations on El Nayar’s menu. There are crab quesadillas and tostadas that can be ordered a la carte, salads tossed with fish, and specialties such as shrimp quesadillas and burritos. It’s hard, however, to resist the classic fish taco platter ($12.99). Here the fish is breaded and tucked into flour tortillas with onion and cilantro and your choice of pico de gallo or guacamole (the former works well as a foil to the breading). Although it seems like pan-fried or grilled fish is the more popular (and healthier) way to go these days, there’s a guilty pleasure in the crunch of a fried fish taco, diet be damned. Small plastic cups of milder red and fiery green salsas (optional) accompany all items. The presentation could be a little more thoughtful here, and not just because you’ll find yourself reaching for more salsa throughout the meal. When you serve meals on china plates, the plastic seems to take you back to carryout territory.

Service, too, could use a bit more polish, or maybe just maturity. The young people serving at El Nayar were polite to a fault, answering questions about the menu and bringing mugs and wine glasses to the table (the restaurant is BYOB). Still, their inexperience shows, particularly when one table had issues with errant condensation from an air conditioning vent and the staff, clearly stymied, watched wordlessly while the family complained and moved themselves to another table. A more experienced manager on the premises could ensure situations like that are handled deftly.

Still, El Nayar is a boon to Catonsville’s busy main drag. Family friendly, family run, it’s an affordable pleasure in tough times.

El Nayar is open Monday-Saturday for lunch and dinner (and breakfast on Saturday).

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