Bay Bites

 Vol. 10, No. 18

May 2-8, 2002

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More Latin American Fare at La Braza
by Chris Kulczycki

While some restaurant reviewers daydream of eating in the world’s finest restaurants, I fantasize about discovering inexpensive little eateries with exotic and wonderful food. At La Braza, a tiny, quirky, and unpretentious Latin American restaurant in Annapolis, I struck gold — or at least silver.

It wasn’t easy to find La Braza with its tiny sign and nondescript facade. Look across the street from Annapolis Seafood Market. The 11 tables are set with red and white tablecloths and cloth napkins, but two wall-mounted televisions detract from the elegance.

La Braza’s oddly organized menu is ambitious for such a small establishment. Study it carefully and you’ll notice that some entrees are listed before soups, seafood cocktails or appetizers, while some of the best choices — entrée-sized seafood soups and paella — are relegated to the last page. There’s even a breakfast section.

Having deciphered the menu, you might start with the excellent ceviche. Its marinade is heady with lemon and onion while the fish is tender and flavorful; inexplicably, it’s served with saltines. Another nice choice is the corn tamale, which is not, as they too often are, cloying sweet, but leaves you craving another rich bite. My pasteles de carne — a beef empanada — turned out to be a chicken empanada but was nonetheless crispy, spicy and satisfying. Even the chorizo sobre tortilla, simply grilled chorizo sausage on a handmade tortilla, was fulfilling in a minimalist way. And the pork and cheese papusas shouldn’t be overlooked; the filling is creamy and rich while the accompanying spicy cabbage salad offers a crisp and refreshing counterpoint.

Paella is a dish that can test a kitchen’s mettle, and La Braza’s passes easily. The rice is perfectly cooked, nicely bound with stock, and loaded with mussels, clams, squid, fish and quartered crabs. The flavor is deep, intense and spiced to the verge of hot. I detected a little of that Chesapeake standby, Old Bay Seasoning.

Another standout is pollo en crema con salsa. The perfectly cooked, falling-off-the-bone chicken is covered with a decadent sauce of sour cream offset with jalapenos.

Medallones de lomito con salsa champinon, nicely grilled medium rare beef loin, is tender and flavorful, though I’m not sure the accompanying mushroom sauce is worth the bother. Like many entrees, it’s served with perfect beans cooked with sweet red pepper, fresh pico de gallo, outstanding guacamole, rather bland rice and a small salad of lettuce, cucumber and tomato.

Unlike some ethnic restaurants, La Braza’s kitchen staff seems to understand food — not to follow recipes by rote. They don’t, however, always succeed. Mariscada en crema, seafood soup with Salvadorian cream, looks great in its wading pool-sized bowl. Crab, squid, mussels, clams, fish, sweet pepper and even a little lobster lurk in a newburg-like stock. But after a few promising spoonfuls it becomes apparent that the seafood is not as fresh as it should be and the stock, though tasty, is too salty. In the interest of fairness, I’ll admit that I did violate the ‘never order seafood on a Monday’ rule.

I can’t make such an excuse for the camarones al majo de ajo, shrimp sautéed with garlic butter; it was simply sloppily prepared. The shrimp were overcooked and chewy, the garlic tasted as if it had been added too late and hardly cooked, and the butter simply went missing.

La Braza’s desserts are unusual, inexpensive and delicious. The quesadillas Salvadorenas, Salvadoran cornbread, is sweet, buttery and light. The empanadas de plantano is creamy, sweet and hard to share. Nuegados con chilate, made from yucca, I can only describe as a sort of cross between custard and French toast.

Five-month-old La Braza is still waiting for its liquor license. In the meantime you might order some of their exotic fruit juices: mango, tamarindo, maranon, coconut, guanabana. Or try a horchata, Cola Champagne or Mexican soda.

Service at La Braza is attentive, friendly and casual, you might feel as if you’re visiting someone’s home. A nice dinner for two will cost around $45. I’ll return soon.

La Braza
1313 Forest Drive • Annapolis. 410/990-4747
Proprietor: Manuel Carranca
Reason to go: It’s not often you’ll find a restaurant with so many new things to try.
Something to think about: There are some real gems on the menu, but not all that glitters …

Copyright 2002
Bay Weekly