As I've said here many times, it's just too darn difficult to find good Mexican food on the East Coast. That holds true for Baltimore, of course. But I was hopeful when I stopped in the Catonsville location of El Nayar, a Mexican restaurant that specializes in the sabor of the western state of Nayarit. Of course, the menu offerings are what you will usually see on most Mexican restaurant menus (though I had never seen the tequila and chicken soup or cactus and eggs, both of which I will have to try on future visits), but El Nayar promises that they are indeed true to their nayarita roots.
El Nayar is a pretty good place to save money - the a la carte and lunch menus offer some inexpensive (my definition: in the neighborhood of $5) choices for diners, as well as more expensive full-blown platters. None of these is too expensive. The priciest dish I found for lunch was about $10, and their dinner platters aren't much higher. Plus, they have a lunch "happy hour" eery day, in which a different thing is discounted: 10% off your bill, 75 cents off a burrito, etc. (They don't serve alcohol, but the place is BYOB)
Among the dizzying array of foods to eat with my complementary chips and salsa, I chose the three taco platter ($6 - yes, I'm a cheapskate, but I kinda have to be) and a tamale on the side.
This is some of the best Mexican food I have had outside of California or (natch) Mexico. The three tacos came with onions both raw chopped and grilled, as well as chopped cilantro and some unexpected radish slices. Along with them came two types of salsas, a mild green salsa and a medium-hot red salsa. I can take heat better than many people I know, and though it didn't make me sweat or tear up, it came close. A lot of people would find it hot. I myself like this. In case you're not a "hot salsa" person, it comes in a little ramekin on the side.
The tacos consisted of three little soft corn tortillas, the kind you don't often see "Back East" where we are but which you can easily find in Mexico or (again) California. You can have your choice of chicken, carne asada or barbacoa, or mix and match the three - that's what I did. The chicken was moist and flaorful, better than most chicken I have the misfortune of eating out these days. The barbacoa reminded of cochinita pibil but without the tanginess or citrusiness. This was a mellow but ery juicy barbecue. The taco I liked the least was the carne asada one. I did like it a lot, but it wasn't as good as the other ones, as some of the pieces were a little dry on the edges. But that happens sometimes with carne asada. Each taco went well with both salsas, though my favorite salsa had to be the red one.
The tamale was a welcome surprise. This was just a good, "homemade style" chicken tamale. The corn dough around the chicken reminded me of one of the first tamales I had ever eaten on a visit to Phoenix (the one in Arizona) years ago ("El Andar" was that restaurant. I wonder if it's still open?). I loved that one, and it has become the default yardstick against which all the other tamales I have eaten since have been measured. This tamale measured up well against that one, and better than most I have eaten in years.
Along with my soda my entire bill came to little over $10. I left a few dollars extra for the tip (easy to figure out since a 20% was just $2). The service was good, and the food came out fast, so that was a nice thing, too. All over it was a good, cheap eating experience, and a welcome oasis of tasty Mexican food in a part of the country where tasty Mexican food just isn't that easy to find.