Chef Chad Gauss’s second foray into the Baltimore food scene, La Food Marketa, is a mixed bag of delicious treats and some other items that don’t quite hit their mark.
Don’t let the sleepy shopping center vibe deceive you, once you step into La Food Marketa it’s jam packed. I mean literally every table is full and even if you have a reservation you should expect to wait a little (we waited about 30 minutes, even with a reservation). I’m willing to wait for good food, so wait is what I did.
The ambiance and vibe of La Food Marketa is warm and modern, the neon “La Food Marketa” sign that sits above the kitchen is a nice touch. The noise level is energetic without feeling like you have to shout to hear your fellow diner. There is a starkly different feel to this restaurant in comparison to Food Market in Hampden, mainly because of the lack of hipsters. Depending on which side of hipster hatred spectrum you lie (meaning you hate them, really hate them, love them, or are indifferent), this is either good or bad. Personally, I don’t really care either way, but I know some of you immediately thing thick framed black lensless glasses and tucked in slim flannel shirts when I say Food Market. The clientele is decidedly more suburban and older, think of it as all of your friends who had kids and moved out to the suburbs. So again, it’s not a good or bad thing, it’s just different.
I for one, LOVE the location. Why? Because I have the mentality of a grumpy old man when it comes to driving to restaurants, I want an easy parking and driving situation. If I have to go through some sort of parking vision-quest just to eat your 17 dollar macaroni and cheese I’m going to be pretty damn salty. The parking could not be easier here as there is a gigantic parking lot and the commute is right off of 695. Some of you may be rolling yours eyes at me right now, but honestly I don’t care, nothing you say can change my mind about this.
Once you finally sit down, you’re immediately given probably the best thing they serve at the restaurant (and this isn’t a slight on the rest of the menu), it’s the bread. I don’t know what the hell they call these little fluffy cheesy balls of heaven, but they are fantastic. Think of them as some sort of southwestern biscuit, it has the consistency of cheesy bread but the rich buttery flavor/texture of a biscuit. They’re hard to describe but very easy to inhale/fall in love with.
The menu itself is similar to Food Market in the sense that it has a plethora of fun options for you to choose from. Obviously, there is a southwestern/Latin American theme to the menu items and if I had to guide your dining experience I would honestly recommend going down the small plate route instead of the big meal options. Why? The small plates are fun and original, fun items like the empanadas, queso, and sunken pork burrito allow you to see the restaurants creative side. The big meal options are enough for two people (that’s what we did), they’re a mixture of Latin spin on American staples (i.e. the Hamburguesa which is a hamburger inside a cheese tortilla), major proteins with a southwestern flavor profile, or southwestern staples like tacos and fajitas.
*I should mention that they also have some standard fare like salmon and short rib for the people who for some reason came to a Latin American/South American restaurant but decided they wanted traditional American food. I personally don’t get it, but hey it takes all kinds man.*
I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about the chips and queso dip. When you go to a Latin-American/Tex-Mex restaurant the best part of the meal (to me) is the self indulgent luxurious cheese dip also known as queso, that you get to have prior to the meal. The chips are all house made (so they appear at least), they’re razor thin which really comes down to preference on whether this is a good or bad thing. Personally, I’d like them to be thicker which would allow for a more substantial dip opportunity, but the thinness of the chips also allows for maximum engorgement. The chips are still tasty despite being super thin, but the real star is the queso dip itself. Unlike other restaurants where it’s either too bland or too thick, this dip is clearly crafted by cheese professionals. It’s rich in flavor and it has all the properties of a perfect queso dip; the consistency is smooth and silky, the flavor is slightly tangy with a jack cheese kick, and the addition of the chorizo adds just enough spicy kick to bring it all together. Basically it’s a perfect 10 and if all you had at this restaurant was the bread and the queso dip, you’d leave very happy.
Beyond the cheese dip, we also tried the sunken pork burritos, you can easily get this as your meal if you’re not a big eater as it’s the perfect portion size. You’re given two loosely wrapped burritos that are filled with pulled pork, rice, and beans; it’s then covered with a rich tomato gravy that is smoky and incredibly rich (without being overpowering). I highly recommend getting this.
Moving to the big plates, the Mrs. and I decided to share one entree rather than trying to gorge ourselves with two gigantic entrees. We opted to share the Carnitas tacos, which comes separately as almost a make your own taco kit. First you have the warm (appearing to be house-made) tortillas, then you have your various accoutrements like guac, salsa, pickled cabbage, onions, and lettuce, and finally you have a cast iron skillet filled with rice and smoky pulled pork (carnitas). The entire ensemble works together well as you can build your taco however you like, other diners preferred to go towards the pre-assembled taco route instead but I cannot turn down the opportunity to eat carnitas. Saying that it works well together does not mean that it’s the best thing that I’ve ever eaten, it’s not, but it’s also not bad either. I just didn’t wow me like the small plates did, I imagine that perhaps the other big plates may have more wow factor to them, but I suspect it’s more of the same. Similarly to the regular Food Market, the small plates seem to outshine the main entrees.
The main entrees come with an assortment of side options, one which comes highly recommended by the restaurant itself, the tamalitos, they’re billed as being the tastiest cornbread you’ll ever have. The tamalitos are large cornbread-esque squares that are served warm with melted butter ontop, it all sounds amazing. BUT.
They were a gigantic letdown in my opinion, they lacked flavor and the gritty texture was not what you expected. They would be better served to serve sweet arepas in lieu of these, but I get what they’re trying to execute here, it just fell flat.
Moving to the final chapter of the meal, the dessert. The menu options vary from a garish Banana milkshake that appears to be big on pomp and meh on actual flavor to a cheesecake nacho dip, which is what we opted for. The other items have a “Food Market” zest to them, by that I mean they craft some of the idyllic things you associate with Tex-Mex (churros, tres leches, flan) and amp them up by serving them with a high-end gourmet flare.
The cheesecake nachos are a mixed bag (no pun intended). For a dish that has so much potential to be amazing, the end result is disappointing. When they place the “nachos” in front of you it almost seems like they were an afterthought. The cinnamon sugar is heavy handed and plated poorly, meanwhile the “cheesecake” dip while flavorful is a goopy mess that looks more like a Pinterest-Fail than a high end dessert. This doesn’t mean that it tasted bad, it tastes pretty good but the execution was not there. The chips that are in fact appropriately covered in sugar (and not dried out) are warm and pliable, perfect for dipping. The cheesecake dip is smooth, not overly sweet, and carries a slight hint of lime that goes well with the chips. The dessert if I was eating it at home would be fine, but it missed my expectations for a restaurant that is considered to be on the higher end of the culinary spectrum.
Overall, I’m not quite sure how to grade La Food Marketa. If you’re grading it in the same category as other South American restaurants I would say you’re better off going to your favorite than coming here. Why? It’s not that the food is bad (it’s good), but it doesn’t quite hit the mark at every category to really satisfy your South American cuisine jones (like say R&R Taqueria does). If you’re grading it on the same scale as say a Food Market or any other trendy “hip” restaurant I’d say it’s right up there with some of the best of them, not quite at the level of Food Market. The prices like everything else will throw you for a loop, you’re going to be paying more than you’re used to for this kind of food. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, “ethnic” food overall is under priced unfairly due to the societal expectation that “ethinc” or “foreign” food has to be cheap. The pricing falls in line with Food Market or Woodberry Kitchen, on the higher end, but not ridiculous.
Overall Grade: B+, it’s a solid restaurant that deserves more menu exploration. This score seems lower than some of the other restaurants that I’ve been to that may not be as good, but that’s probably because they’re also not as hyped as the “Food Market” brand is. I would still recommend this restaurant to anyone who loves the Food Market and is looking for something different in the deluge of suburban culinary fare.