Wednesday, May 24, 2006

When the name of one restaurant kept coming up in conversation, I knew it was time to investigate for myself. That restaurant is the Pachanga Grill, and an uncanny number of people have referred to the good food and casual atmosphere there.

I felt compelled to check out the regional Mexican cuisine and see if it lived up to all the hype.

Tucked in a small strip mall in Odenton, Md., Pachanga is fairly nondescript from the outside.

A reference to it on the Academy Junction (name of the strip mall) sign is your only warning that you just passed the restaurant.

Both indoor and outdoor seating are available. Of course, if the weather is nice, the outdoor seating can’t be beat, but space is limited, so expect a wait on some nights.

Open seven days a week, serving lunch and dinner, Pachanga caters to locals and regulars in addition to a number of federal employees — Fort Meade and the National Security Agency are just up the road.

Our first order of business was deciding between the Pachanga punch (mug, $5.50) or margarita (mug, $5.25). We ordered one of each. The margarita, not too strong but with the right amount of kick, proved easy to drink and went down fast.

The punch is one of the margaritas, frozen or on the rocks, which is kicked up a notch with the addition of some of the restaurant’s own sangria. It is a fun combination that also is very easy to drink.

On tap is an Annapolis-based Fordham-brewed pale ale, served under the name Pachanga Ale and arriving in a cold mug. It is a great match with the menu.

Fresh tortillas and a homemade salsa arrived next. The salsa featured lots of heat and flavor, not just the pretty diced tomatoes like you’ll find at some places.

Good openers include the stuffed jalapenos packed with zesty chicken and deep fried to a golden brown and served with sour cream; quesadillas, which can either be stuffed with cheese, chicken, steak, shrimp, crab or spinach; and the three Mexican soups and five salads.

For your next course, just about any variety of tacos, burritos, enchiladas, chimichangas or fajitas are on the menu. All are served with Mexican rice and black beans.

The fiesta fajitas plate (the night’s special at $9.95) came sizzling to the table piled with steak, chicken and shrimp.

The big standouts at Pachanga are the house specialty entrees. Frutas del mar ($15.95) is filet of fish, shrimp and scallops in a spicy garlic onion sauce served with rice and a small salad. The sauce was truly delicious, not too spicy but spicy enough.

Chicken mole ($13.95) is an excellent example of this famous dish. The sauce, made of chili pods, nuts, fruits and chocolate, is very rich, but that is balanced nicely by the heat from the chilies. The large chunks of chicken were amazingly tender, and the chicken flavor was clearly evident even with the sauce.

Carne asada ($16.95) is a T-bone steak marinated in herbs, peppers, chili, lime juice and olive oil. It is grilled to order and served with black beans, rice and tortillas.

Make sure to save some room for one of the great desserts. Mil hojas ($3.50) is multiple layers of flaky pastry coupled with a rich vanilla custard. Sopapillas ($3.75) were crisp and puffy as they must be, with a perfect dousing of honey and cinnamon. Other choices include flan, fried ice cream, churros and pastel de tres leches.

The only negative was getting seated and placing our order. The staff seemed to be overwhelmed with the evening’s crowd. However, once our order made it to the kitchen, food arrived in a snap.

Owner Fernando Duran also operates the Broadneck Grill, which offers Mexican cuisine in Annapolis.

RESTAURANT: Pachanga Grill, 8395 Piney Orchard Parkway, Odenton, Md.; 410/551-9318

HOURS: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily

PRICES: Appetizers, $6.50 to $7.95; soups and salads, $3.75 to $8.95; sandwiches, $6.95 to $7.95; fajitas, $12.95 to $15.95; enchiladas, $9.75 to $11.75; chimichangas, $10.95 to $11.95; tacos, $9.75 to $10.95; burritos, $9.75 to $11.25; entrees, $13.50 to $16.95; desserts, $2.95 to $4.95

RESERVATIONS: Not accepted

CREDIT CARDS: All major cards

PARKING: On-site

ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible

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