The Flores family never dreamed that 15 years after they emigrated from Mexico, Maryland state senator Jim Robey would be on hand at their restaurant opening to whack a celebratory piñata. Yet that's exactly how the business started—with an explosion of candy foretelling a boom of happy customers.
Named for the Flores’s hometown of Nayarit, El Nayar was designed as a reflection of the clan’s personality, which they describe as "authentic Mexican, laid-back, and down-to-earth." They’re proud that amid the exposed-brick columns and blue- and red-tiled counter, immigrants can be found enjoying cactus and eggs beside American businessmen talking shop over tacos and quesadillas. It’s this mentality, along with sizzling fajitas and house-made spicy sauce, that has earned the restaurant an award as a Top 10 Mexican Restaurant by the Baltimore Sun.
Also honored with a Healthy Howard award for the dietary excellence of its menu, the BYOB establishment encourages diners to supplement meals with glasses of a favorite red wine, good for the heart, or shots of tequila, good for hand-walking skills and adding into specialty margaritas.
Loco Hombre is a Tex-Mex outpost serving favorites from both sides of the border, giving star-crossed hamburger and taco fans a meeting place at last. The dinner menu boasts Southwestern succulents such as the crab, artichoke, and chorizo dip ($10), whose Old Bay–dusted tortilla chips act as the spicy vessel for gooey goodness. Mexican entrees include pork tacos, with carnitas playing a staring role in a musical of flavors that includes chorus members queso fresco, jalapeño escabeche, and cilantro ($13). A jalapeño-popper burger stuffs Roseda beef with jalapeños and cream cheese and serves it up alongside a chipotle-ranch sauce ($15 for 1 lb., $13 for 8 oz.). Entrees such as the jambalaya ($18) contend for the heavyweight taste title, with ingredients such as chicken and a duo of sausages melding harmoniously in a Creole stew of peppers, tomato, onion, okra, and rice. Loco Hombre also serves lunch, a better way to satisfy midday Tex-Mex cravings than eating salsa out of a Longhorns cap.
Zen West lassos together an assortment of Tex-Mex fare and American Western décor in a laid-back environment primed for dinner and drinks. Cowhands can tether their horses to a bike rack before sauntering inside to peruse the menu and fill up on tacos ($6.95+) and burritos ($7.95+) stuffed with steak, chicken, vegetables, and other tasty morsels. After an exhausting afternoon of throwing hay bales into an obnoxious neighbor’s pool, refuel with sandwiches such as the fried chicken sandwich ($8.95) and the grilled portobello sandwich ($7.95). Additionally, thirsty patrons can stock up on drinks at the bar.
Inside the Lexington Market, Mexican Delight’s chef draws on more than 20 years of experience to build a simple menu of fresh entrees, including halal options. Steamed tortillas fold around three kinds of burritos, including a breakfast version with spicy eggs and a queso option with two kinds of cheese. Fajita plates sizzle with hand-cut meat, and diners can bookend their meals with an appetizer of chicken-stuffed jalapeños and deep-fried ice cream sweetened with honey and whipping cream. On Fridays and Saturdays, live musicians play blues, motown, and jazz tunes to entertain guests and help couples chew their meals in perfect rhythm.
Recently featured in the Baltimore Sun, Diablita boasts a tantalizing menu chock-full of contemporary Mexican cuisine, with dashes of Caribbean flavor and Texas 'tude tossed in for good measure. Exotic starters, such as crispy, chipotle-encrusted calamari ($9) or pulled-pork empanadas ($9), set the stage for meals made of fresh, novel ingredients. Diablita serves burritos with rice and beans, pico de gallo, and cilantro sour cream; burritos come in mushroom ($11), chicken ($10), and shrimp ($14.50) varieties, each flavor hailing from an alternate reality in the tortilla time continuum. Fajitas such as the tequila-lime chicken ($16) and the adobe-marinated pork ($15.50) flank their protein-rich centerpieces with masterfully sautéed onions. House-made churros ($6.50) conclude the comestible parade with sugar-ignited fireworks.
The best thing about visiting the "little" versions of other regions is the food. The second-best thing is that the little versions of grown-up animals still look like baby animals. Today’s Groupon muddles the experience with tropical tastes, splashes it with Latin locomotion, and garnishes it with extended metaphors. For $10, you get $25 worth of scrumptious Cuban cuisine and drinks at Little Havana Restaurant y Cantina Cubana, a casual Federal Hill eatery that's been serving authentic cuisine for more than a decade. Little Havana's is open Monday through Thursday from 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. (kitchen closes at 10 p.m.), Friday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. (kitchen closes at 11 p.m.), and Sundays for brunch and dinner from 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. (kitchen closes at 10 p.m.).