Sunday, May 06, 2007

Cafe Hon

Happy Cinco de Mayo (or as it's written in Spanish, cinco de mayo). I was of like mind with, apparently, most of central Maryland in trying to find a Mexican dinner to commemorate the Mexican defeat of the French invaders at the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862 (at the same time as our Civil War).

Well, I spent an hour driving around to find a Mexican restaurant that didn't have a line. No such thing last night. I forgot what happened to me on St. Patrick's Day, when I tried to get into two different Irish pubs and ended up doing Italian because I didn't want to wait so long for food (still have yet to get to Mick O'Shea's or James Joyce).

It was the same last night - d'oh. Since Baltimore does not have the reputation for great Mexican food, I got on the City Paper website to find good ones. One of their top picks was El Salto up in Parkville. So I said "Why not?" and headed up. After wading through 10 people standing outside I got discouraged; after seeing the 30 others standing and waiting for a seat inside I just left. I then headed for Hampden because I knew the Holy Frijoles was there, and I like that place. But the maitre'd told me there was a 40 minute wait for a table and with so many people at the bar, it seemed I'd have to wait that long to sit there, too.

So I gave up and went to Cafe Hon, which didn't look too crowded.

If you're a non-Baltimore reader, you need to know something about Cafe Hon: it has quite a reputation in this town. It's a center of Baltimore kitsch and culture. It's also, in a way, the center of the "honiverse" (I think I just coined a new term). There's no good definition for "hon" on the internet. If you're reading from further South, she's kind of Baltimore's version of the Sweet Potato Queen, but in stretchy leopard print clothing and with just as much sassiness and spunk (NB: I didn't know we had SPQ chapters in Maryland, but we do). My grandmother - on my mother's side - was truly a hon, without the leopard prints. The indigenous language at Cafe Hon is Bawlamerese, toned down enough so out-of-towners will understand the staff. And the decor is fun, the atmosphere is more so, the waitresses are always friendly, and the food is very good. Not spectacular or orgasmic, but very good. It is nothing short of an institution in Baltimore.

And hell, Cafe Hon has been written about everywhere: the New York Times, Los Angeles Times (!), Southern Living Magazine - twice there, Enquire Magazine (not the Enquirer), the Towson University Messenger, and of course, the Sun, the Washington Post and the City Paper. Plus, Rachael Ray profiled it on her Tasty Travels show.

My waitress asked me to wait while she looked for a table - there were a few free ones. It was just me and Elvis there when she got back and told me they only had large tables - could I sit at the counter? That was fine anyway. Out came my waitress in the beehive and leopard print. She was quite friendly and asked me what I wanted to drink - a $5 Guinness draft (yes, I did order a Corona for $4 after that, for the holiday). My eyes fell on the fish tacos, but since they were out I got the hot open-faced roast beef. Instead of mashed potatoes I asked for fries.

Between the Guinness (and a separate glass of water) and the roast beef came my salad. This has to be one of the most satisfying dinner salads I have eaten in ages. No iceberg lettuce at all (hate the stuff)! Just arugula, radicchio, and other dark salad greens, all with some delicious green dressing that I thought might have avocado in it.

When I was done with that the waitress, mindful of her diners, brought out my roast beef ($12 - a little much for roast beef, but it did come with a lot of stuff). It was a little tough and probably was lunchmeat, but still hearty and tasty (I refuse to use the word "rib-sticking" in any context). It was all smothered in a good gravy that spilled over to the fries just a bit. I am rarely impressed with restaurant fries - okay, I never am. The fries here were okay, better with ketchup. But I did ask for Old Bay (No surprise here! They have shakers full of it) and that made them taste so good. Again, if you're not from Baltimore and you're reading this: look for Old Bay, and sprinkle it on your fries. They are transformed with Old Bay. Even the little toss-away side order of peas, carrots, lima beans and cubed carrots were raised to slightly-above-mediocre with the Old Bay on them (that's not Cafe Hon's fault, it's just a natural characteristic of the dish wherever you find it).

Here's something that surprised me. I got ketchup on my shirt. My waitress noticed I was wiping something off of myself, so she immediately suggested club soda and lemon - perfect thing to get stains out. Oh my God, you don't get that kind of service anywhere these days! I knew she was getting a big tip (for me that's 20% - I usually leave 15%).

For dinner, I asked for their $2.50 Mexican fried ice cream - again because of the holiday. It was delightful, better than those I have tasted (though this dish in general is not as good as your typical tempura ice cream). All cinnamony and thickly caked on the vanilla ice cream. Yum.

All this came to about $25. After the $5 tip (yep, 20%), it came to $30. Yes, more than I wanted to spend, but still good. With that, I gratefully gave the check to my waitress (my whole number was printed on it, so I didn't want to just leave it sitting there), headed out, not drunk or even buzzed from the beer, and went to meet a friend at the Hippo where I got, of course, more Guinness.

AFTERWORD: I checked my bank account this morning, and noticed that Cafe Hon only debited me the pre-tip amount for my meal! Huh? They didn't take my tip! Now, don't get me wrong, I like saving a little money. But 1) the service was very good, over and above what I'm used to, and 2) I know I wrote a tip on my receipt and added it into my total. And of course there's 3) I don't want people to think I'm a bad tipper. A 20% tip and they didn't enter it into the credit card machine. Oh well. I'll just have to bring loose dollar bills with me next time I eat out for dinner.

And if anyone from Cafe Hon is reading this: I did leave a tip on my receipt last night, but y'all didn't want it, I guess. So please take my tip the next time I come!


Fairfax said...

Should have tried the El Salto in GlemBurnee! I did a review of it a couple of weeks ago. We chose to celebrate the Derby with juleps instead of cdm.

Baltimore Snacker said...

I should've checked your blog first. And that was closer to me, d'oh!

Claude said...

Hi! Long time/first time, etc.

Restaurants run your card through before you've calculated the tip (unless it's like Double-T Diner, say, which is "kind" enough to do it for you), so the bank will put the temporary hold on that amount. It's not until the transaction clears the bank the second time, when the restaurant closes out the batch for the day, that the correct amount will be transmitted to the bank and then appear on your statement. Sometimes it can take a couple of days.

Baltimore Snacker said...

Thanks. Cafe Hon is, oddly, the first I've found that actually did that to me, so the surprise is understandable. But at least they should get their tip if that is the case.

Dan said...

After a half-dozen or so visits I have come to the undeniable conclusion that Cafe Hon may be one of the worst restaurants in the area, yet it seems to get a continual pass from people because of its kitschy decor and hon-tastic setting.

I've had everything there from soup and sandwiches for lunch to dinner entrees and I've never come away thinking, "Hey, that was pretty good."

In fact, my last visit was a disaster and has turned me off to the place for good. It was a Friday night in early February and my buddy and I had spent the day off from work up in Philly. We returned to Baltimore, met up with some friends for happy hour down in Hampden and decided to get a bite for dinner.

With Holy Frijoles telling us we'd have to wait 30 minutes for a table we hoofed it down to Cafe Hon where there were tables aplenty. I was in the mood for some serious comfort food and decided on my old standby: The Meatloaf Dinner.

Frankly, my belief is that any diner or cheap eats type of restaurant can be judged by their meatloaf. It's one of the simplest things in the world to make but also easy to screw up. I firmly believe that if you can't make a decent meatloaf, how can I trust you to make anything else well?

My wife joined us for dinner and ordered a burger cooked medium rare while my friend had the fish and chips. When my meatloaf arrived it was literally inedible. Not because the meatloaf itself was bad. In fact, I have no idea how the meatloaf tasted because the entire thing was covered in the worst, saltiest, most horrifyingly awful attempt at an herbed gravy that I've ever had in my life.

I literally took the pieces of white bread that were sitting under the meatloaf and desperately attempted to blot the horrific sauce off the meat. While this helped a little the sauce had still seeped into the meat, basically turning the whole thing into a chewy salt lick.

But I got off easy. When my wife's burger arrived at the table it was, um, undercoked. No, wait, what's the word I'm looking for? Oh, right. Raw. That's it.

Apparently misunderstanding "medium rare" to mean "bloody, cold and raw," the cooks (and I use that word ever so loosely) had basically browned the burger on both sides and served it up.

So atrociously raw and inedible (in other words, 2/3 of our meals were wretched beyond belief) was the burger that the two halves of the patty easily separated in her hands because the insides were still bloody, cold and raw.

At least the waitress was sharp enough to recognize this disgraceful display and took the burger off our bill.

Like I said, this was not a one-time experience with Cafe Hon. I've had a half-dozen or so meals there, all of which have ranged from staggeringly mediocre to immediately forgettable. But this took disregard for the diner and a lack of interest in preparation to new heights.

Maybe the owner should concentrate more on the food being served than playing up the kitschy angle and Hon-gear.

There are too many decent places to eat in the area for me to give Cafe Hon another shot.

Baltimore Snacker said...

I admit that has popped in my mind before - it should be better than this. And a large part is definitely the decor. I don't think the food is that bad though. I've only eaten there, oh, three or four times. Maybe I'm just easier to please, I dunno.