Finding Miguel's is almost like discovering the wondrous city of Oz. You're in working-roots Locust Point with its traditional Formstone row houses, funky corner bars, and smattering of warehouses when you turn down Beason Street and suddenly spot the towering, gleaming building in front of you.
Silo Point—the city's newest monolith of modernity—quickly zaps you into the 21st century. The residential, 24-story former grain terminal has been given a revitalized, glitzy life by the Turner Development Group. Miguel's Cocina y Cantina is just one of the amenities planned for homeowners and visitors at the waterside location.
But once you arrive, where is Miguel's? Perseverance pays off. There's limited parking in front of the skyscraper, but there is also a free garage if you go straight through the open, street passageway. Once you've housed the car, look for small signs that will point you through a ground-level labyrinth to a glass, double-door entrance with handles shaped liked silver cactus leaves. Hola, Miguel's.
Straight ahead is a hostess stand to the left and a small statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe in an alcove to the right. Somehow, the religious artifact fits right into owner Michael Marx's restaurant tribute to all things Mexico. Other images include burlesque skeletons—symbols of the Latin American Day of the Dead holiday, a festive occasion, despite its name—scattered around the restaurant in mirthful poses.
The wood bar, with stylish, three-dimensional stars overhead, separates two dining rooms in the expansive space. Big windows overlook commercial ships and the harbor. Colors are mustard, pale green, beige, and deep blue. But the palette and décor come together to create a tasteful, upscale, fun setting.
Waiters have names like Pablo and Paco and wear black T-shirts with the word empleados (workers) on the back. The night we had dinner, our server was juggling too many tables. He still took time to explain the various dishes to us—when we could catch him, that is.
There are several words on the menu that may not be familiar to local diners, like calabaza (a pumpkin-like squash) or nopales (cactus), unless you're fluent in Spanish. Marx, who also owns Rub in Federal Hill, promises on the restaurant's website (miguelsbaltimore.com) that the food and drink at Miguel's are "100 percent authentic," based on his experiences eating and living in Mexico.
We were impressed with most of the fare and happy to have finally found Latino food that carries the heat of chiles. We like it hot! But, don't worry, most dishes won't overwhelm more timid taste buds.
The meal starts with complimentary tortilla chips and two sauces, a mild green tomatillo sauce and spicier red-tomato one. We also had the guacamole, which, the first time we ordered it, was wonderfully chunky, kicky, and limey. (We had guacamole on another visit. That version was bland and uninspired. Go figure.)
We adored the warm cactus salad. The flavors were elusively captivating. To us, the slivers of cactus tasted like okra (but not slimy). They were mixed with julienne carrots, poblano chiles, jicama, radish slices, and corn (even though that wasn't listed on the menu), and lightly tossed with a grapefruit margarita vinaigrette. The mixture sat atop a bright-red corn tostado. So pretty!
One of the small plates we tried featured shrimp, cooked just enough, in a piquant, slightly sweet ancho-tamarind sauce. A jicama slaw added crunchy texture.
Entrees were uneven. The grilled skirt steak, still pink inside, was quite good. The meat in a mole verde (a rich, green sauce made from tomatillos and pumpkin seeds) was tender, and the accompaniments were impressive—arroz verde (long-grain rice with pureed cilantro sprigs), calabaza (which looked and tasted suspiciously like zucchini but was still delicious) with pumpkin seeds, and corn tortillas.
The slow-roasted chunks of pork, marinaded in Coke, sounded so intriguing. Unfortunately, the caramelized meat cubes were overcooked. We liked the refried beans with cilantro, onions, and jalapeños, though.
The salmon en pepitas (fish coated with crushed pumpkin seeds) also would have benefited from less cooking. But the sides were redeeming—a delightful sunflower-seed red chard and black beans.
You want to stick around for desserts. The warm chocolate-ancho chile bread pudding—made from challah bread (hey, a little cross-cultural borrowing never hurt)—is a square of deeply rich cake that succeeds with the sweet-hot ingredients. The churros (like doughnuts) were excellent. These were breadstick crisp, not as doughy as some, but generously rolled in cinnamon sugar for a fragrant scent and flavor.
We also asked for the Mexican cinnamon cake but got a tres leche cake instead. We were okay with the swap. It was a fine version of the traditional dessert.
Miguel's is as charming as a favorite, dapper uncle whom we love despite his few flaws. The real-deal preparations and sleek setting will lure us back again. That and the Atomic Fire Ball candies you can help yourself to as you leave.