New Highlandtown restaurant isn’t Mi Viejo Pueblito, and that’s just fine
Published: April 13, 2011
601 S. Conkling St., (410) 522-0007
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And so it goes. Adios, Mi Viejo Pueblito, the brightly painted Highlandtown restaurant that garnered a fierce following before closing in February. Bienvenidos, Fiesta Mexicana, the Rosedale-based eatery with an equally loyal following. According to restaurant employees, this new Fiesta Mexicana will be in addition to the original Philadelphia Road restaurant rather than a replacement for it, and while there are already plenty of folks, myself included, who mourn the passing of Mi Viejo Pueblito (That mole! That posole!), Fiesta Mexicana isn’t a bad fit for the Conkling Street space, if only to allow the chance to serve more diners than its other, very small location could possibly handle.
Physical changes to the dining room have been minimal: The walls are a slightly deeper shade of gold, baskets of flowers and the bright serapes that once acted as placemats have disappeared, and a glass case full of pastries now tempts you as you walk in, offering the reward of dessert if you finish your dinner. There are still televisions and Latin music on the loudspeakers, but it all feels a little less celebratory, slightly less giddy than the former dining room, and it’s not without its quirks.
Both a phone call to the restaurant prior to the visit and a sign in the dining room confirm that the restaurant is BYOB, but the sign goes a bit further, explaining that the restaurant will not provide glasses. This is not a problem, obviously, if you bring beer, but we got the distinct impression that the wine drinkers wouldn’t always get the glasses our server was persuaded to bring to the table. As the Boy Scouts say, be prepared (this means toting along proper openers too). Also be aware that Fiesta Mexicana eschews offering complimentary chips and salsa—not a big deal, but still a sticking point for some customers, according to our server.
While Fiesta Mexicana’s takeout menu’s boast of being “the only authentic mexican [sic] food in town” is a bit of stretch, the restaurant’s dedication to regionalism—in this case, the food of Mexico City—is real. The owner won’t serve burritos, says our server, because he doesn’t consider them authentic, but it is possible to order mole, though the current version is a bit sweeter and not as complex as others in town. There are also simple, homey offerings like “el nido” ($5.25), a platter of chorizo mixed with refried black beans served with a handful of chips for scooping up the salty, hearty meat. The menu describes the dish as “everyday food,” and in the best possible way it feels like something you might throw together in your kitchen. Sopes ($7.75 for two)—small, thick tortillas with pinched rims that allow a mound of topping to be piled high—offer more comfort, especially if you choose hongas (mushrooms) as your topping (though the shredded beef, carne de res, is pretty satisfying too).
Fiesta Mexicana also offers more familiar dishes, such as guacamole and nachos, tostadas, flautas, and tacos, all with a choice of fillings that range from the expected (chicken) to the less common (roasted poblano peppers, chorizo and potatoes). Many of these can be sampled on one of two sampler platters, the paquet eduques or the larger paquet llenes. A single order of chicken enchiladas ($11.25) comes smothered in a salsa verde as clean- and green-tasting as its name. Inside the corn tortillas, the white and dark shredded meat is relatively unadorned; outside, there’s a sprinkle of cheese and onion, a drizzle of crema. Simple, a little dry maybe, but very fresh. Ditto for the cecina ($12.50), marinated flank steak served with corn tortillas, a plate of beans and rice, and a garnish of tomato, cheese, and avocado. The restaurant also serves breakfast all day, so if huevos rancheros are your thing, by all means try Fiesta Mexicana’s version: two eggs over easy, each fried to fit perfectly on top of a tortilla. Here, too, the garnish is minimal: some chunky fresh salsa over the eggs, a thick pool of black beans, and some golden rice to go with them.
After this, the pambazo ($7.50) comes as a bit of an anomaly when it arrives. Picture a football made out of bread, saturated in ruddy, spicy guajillo sauce, and stuffed with chorizo, potatoes, and cheese, and you begin to get the picture. It’s a messy delight, though to be honest, they had me at potatoes on a sandwich.
While a respectable, snowy tres leches cake ($3.50) as well as a number of pastries in the glass case are made off premises, Fiesta Mexicana makes its flan ($3.50) in house. An order brings an ample spoke cut from a wheel of custard, sturdy and redolent of burnt caramel.
One critique I expect to hear over and over about Fiesta Mexicana is that it isn’t Mi Viejo Pueblito. And that’s certainly accurate. Judged on its own merits though, Fiesta Mexicana holds its own for an inexpensive meal. Just remember to bring your own glass.
Fiesta Mexicana is open seven days a week for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
> Email Mary K. Zajac