Start with the groceries. Lily's Mexican Market off Dobbin Road in Columbia is a true local treasure -- the class of the Mexican markets and the equal of any ethnic market around. Down those aisles, you can buy the Latino packaged and canned goods, along with baked goods, cheeses, frozen meals like arepas or tamales, and a nice array of produce. (Lily's is the place for ripe avocados when your supermarket only offers hard ones, and it even has some unique items like cactus.) Then, in the back, there is a butcher with fajita meat, Mexican and Salvadoran chorizos and more. If you're cooking Mexican food (or just looking for a snack), Lily's is the place to go.
Then, move onto Mexican fast food. By "fast food," I mean tacos and similar fare served either takeout or in basic restaurants. Last fall, Lily's added a takeout counter with tacos and chickens. Until then, the best tacos were strung along U.S. 1 -- the El Nayar restaurant in Elkridge, then the Pupuseria Lorenita's truck near Rte 175, and Pupuceria Y Taqueria Los Pinos truck in Laurel. Tacos cost about $2 at each place -- a little more at the actual restaurants. Two is a great meal, splitting the beef or pork filling among the warm tortillas. Lily's is the top of the class (especially with the horchata), but they're all great spots to stop between errands. (Update: In early spring 2009, the Pupuseria Y Taqueria Las Delicias truck started offering delicious fajitas, ribs and side dishes on U.S. 1 as well.)
But then, some nights, you want to take someone out for a nice meal. I learned the hard way that a woman expecting date night will notice that El Nayar has the ambiance of a Chik-fil-a. Again, we have basic Mexican restaurants round here, mostly Tex-Mex with some authentic Mexican items and some inspired specials. But when you want table service and a good meal, these are some of the joints at the top of the food chain:
- El Azteca in Clarksville. Classic suburbs -- anonymous storefront facing Rte 108, but pretty inside with tile, decorations, and a small bar. Good Tex-Mex. Some upscale entrees. This is a place with a strong local following, and I like all these places for tacos al carbon -- that charred steak that I'm not skilled at making at home.
- La Palapa in Ellicott City / La Palapa Too in Laurel near Columbia. Tex-Mex with some special entrees like El Azteca. Mrs. HowChow enjoyed the chicken mole. I wish the beans and rice at all these places were a bit less bland. But I'm drawn for the ceviche appetizer served on the weekends. Tangy chunks of fish. Salty chips. Order a beer, and I'm happy. Order a beer at La Palapa Too's outdoor seating, and you enjoy the true HoCo Rivieria -- sun, food, and a view of your car. You can't get that at Charleston!
- Mi Casa in Ellicott City. I actually haven't been here yet, but it gets rave reviews in emails and the comments. People talk up the burritos -- both crab and vegetable. They also say that the owners are really friendly.
Other people have talked up Frisco Grille's Southwestern food, which I think of as more California than Mexico. I have also heard about Pachanga on Rte 40 and Zapata's at the Harpers Farm village center in Columbia. In the right column, click the "Cuisine - Mexican" link to read about all the restaurants and shops.
In addition to all of those spots, true explorers may want to check out the food at the food at the U.S. 1 flea market. The market caters heavily to folks from Latin America, so the vendors offer up a variety of foods, including tacos and arepas like the fast food trucks. Plus, there are often people selling snow cones or fruit salads topped with salt and cayenne.
This is part of the "What I Learned" series of posts. They're organized in rings. See below to continue on the ring about different cuisines. Or click to switch to the posts about shopping in Howard County or posts about areas and ideas.
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