By Krista Pfunder
Picante, located next to the former El Toro Bravo space at the end of West Street in downtown Annapolis, opened just in time to feed the droves of attendees in town for the boat shows. Owner Fernando Juarez and his wife Megan have updated the interior space with a new, warmed-up décor with colorful art, mirrors and eye-catching religious iconography.
On the day I dined with a group of girlfriends, the place was also dressed for Halloween, which I always appreciate since it’s my favorite holiday (side note…Hook and Vine in North Beach has gone all out for Halloween, so if you get a chance, stop in).
We were able to quickly get a table without a reservation just after noon on a Wednesday and a server greeted us promptly. As we sat, we heard a nearby diner exclaim that Picante takes him “back to California and Texas,” so we figured this was a good sign of things to come.
After perusing the menu, we realized that chips and salsa don’t come complimentary (you can order them for $3) so we ordered a few appetizers to split.
The three appetizers we chose arrived at the same time, but we all first dug into the Queso Fundido ($10), described as a traditional Mexican-style queso – a melted Oaxacan cheese blend served in a cast iron skillet. Chorizo or poblano can be added for $3. While yummy, it was quite different from the gooey, drippy queso the three of us expected. This version is hard-baked in the skillet and not really suitable for dipping with a chip. We used forks and knives instead to spoon generous helpings onto our chips.
Next up were the Mini Sopes ($10). Three corn masa sopes are piled with refried beans, queso fresco, pickled red onion and chipotle aioli (you can add chorizo, poblano chile rajas or chicken for $3). This was the group favorite of our three appetizers. The sopes were flaky and the beans flavorful. The pickled red onions added a nice balance.
Empanadas ($12) rounded out our appetizer selection. Homemade corn masa is stuffed with an Oaxaca cheese blend and either chicken or poblano chili rajas and drizzled with chipotle aioli. We chose the chicken. The three empanadas were tasty and the chicken stuffed inside is a generous portion. An unidentified red sauce came with the dish. My dining companion who hails from Louisiana and is a fan of spicy sauces, tried it and reported that it was HOT. We inquired about the sauce but our server did not know the name of it nor the ingredients. So diners with sensitive palates, beware!
For our entrees, I ordered the enchiladas ($15), with a choice of chicken or vegetables with rojas (red) or verde (green) as a sauce, with rice and beans. I went with chicken and rojas sauce. The beans had a nice flavor and the three enchiladas were stuffed with plenty of chicken (not just in the middle like you sometimes get, leaving you with two ends of tortilla with just sauce). The dish was good but I am not sure I’d order it again. I’d probably try something else next time (and we definitely want to go back!).
One friend chose the Tostadas ($14). Crispy tortillas, refried beans, lettuce, tomato, pickled jalapenos, crema, queso fresco and a choice of chicken or steak. My friend picked the steak and added a side of sour cream for $1. She said that the greens were crispy, the ingredients were fresh and the steak was perfectly marinated.
The Louisiana native opted for the Huarache ($14) which is essentially a large oblong sope topped with refried beans, pico de gallo, queso fresco, crema and avocado, with a choice of chicken, carne asada, al pastor or fajita vegetables. She noted that some of the pickled red onions featured on the mini sopes would’ve been a great addition to the dish. She described the dish as “tasty, not too heavy and a good lunch option.”
Picante is a true family business and has been welcomed into the West Street dining scene. On the day we dined, the gentleman mixing drinks at the bar happened to be the owner’s brother and is more often spotted practicing law at a firm just a few doors down.
Picante Cocina Mexicano is at 48 West Street, Annapolis, MD 21401, https://www.picanteannapolis.com/