The space that housed Fred & Harry's Seafood Restaurant in Silver Spring's Four Corners area for more than 50 years is barely recognizable now. The warren of booths that seemed to become more dark and dank as the years passed has been swept away. Large windows line the front of the Colesville Road (U.S. Route 29) location, under a bright yellow awning that bears the name of the new occupant, Fajita Coast.
"We had to fix everything," said J.J. Beltran, Fajita Coast's owner. The interior was gutted, the mechanical systems replaced. Off-white tiles pave the floor, handsome blue lights adorn the walls and multicolored lights hang over the tables, which are covered in blue-and-white cloths. A mural of the seashore fills the back wall.
Beltran, a 17-year veteran manager of Cactus Cantina and Lauriol Plaza in the District, opened Fajita Coast in mid-April, after looking for a space for more than three years.
A native Salvadoran who came to the United States in 1986, Beltran relies on the Tex-Mex cuisine he learned from his former employers to form the basis of his new neighborhood place. Some South and Latin American dishes are also among the daily specials, including a Cuban pork dish, masitas de puerco, and the Peruvian lomo saltado (sauteed beef strips with tomatoes and shoestring potatoes).
Over the years, Four Corners (where University Boulevard and Colesville Road intersect) has become a tangle of one-way lanes and complex traffic patterns, heavy with fast-food joints spurred on by the opening of the new Montgomery Blair High School in 1998. But in recent months, the area has experienced something of a renaissance, including the opening recently of a Trader Joe's, several blocks north in the new Burnt Mills Shopping Plaza. The shopping center also has a Starbucks and is soon to add a branch of the Rockville-based California Tortilla chain. But the old Fred & Harry's location, opposite the venerable and updated Woodmoor Shopping Center, has long been the heart of the neighborhood. It had been empty about two years before opening as Fajita Coast.
Although Fajita Coast fronts on Colesville Road, the best entrance is from the rear parking lot, which can be reached by going west on University Boulevard from Colesville and turning right onto Sutherland Road. A blue wrought-iron gate and a window box of bright red geraniums stand in welcome.
Don't be put off by the slightly cafeteria-like feel of the dining room. It's bright, open and spotlessly clean. The small bar area in the rear has a television, but it doesn't dominate or overwhelm the room. Cheerful Mexican music has replaced the karaoke that once passed as entertainment.
A basket of chips and container of salsa arrive almost immediately -- the chips light and crisp, the salsa with a smoky, roasted flavor. The house margarita is a good way to start, but the Gold Margarita is even smoother and better. There is also a selection of premium sipping tequilas and special cocktails, including the Cuban favorite mojito.
Menu choices are numerous, including enchiladas, tacos, tamales, flautas, chiles rellenos, chimichangas, burritos, the namesake fajitas and various combinations. Barbecued ribs, grilled shrimp and chicken, and grilled quail are among other entrees.
Appetizers include a generous portion of ceviche, combining shrimp, scallops and whitefish that have been marinated in citrus juices. The seafood is briny-fresh and has just the right touch of piquancy. A cup of tortilla soup has a rich chicken-broth base and chunks of fresh vegetables, including carrots, zucchini and tomatoes, topped with shredded cheese and toasted tortilla strips.
Although much of the menu is standard Tex-Mex fare, there are nice touches in the execution. The beef that fills the enchiladas is chopped rather than ground; the chilies in the fajitas and other dishes are really chilies and not just green bell pepper; the poblano peppers that form the basis for the flavorful chiles rellenos are huge and fresh, with just a touch of heat. The Mexican rice isn't just red-colored -- you can taste the tomatoes, and there are pleasant bits of chilies and carrot mixed in. The pinto beans that accompany most entrees look and taste like beans rather than just a puddle of mush.
The fajitas deserve their star treatment: The tasty beef or chicken strips arrive sizzling, accompanied by good, chunky guacamole and freshly made pico de gallo (tomato relish). Beltran said everything except the tortillas is made at the restaurant, and he hopes to add a tortilla machine soon.
Save room for some sopapillas, gentle puffs of fried dough served with honey and powdered sugar. I'd prefer the honey on the side, but the sopapillas are light and satisfying.
Fajita Coast Restaurant,10110 Colesville Rd., Silver Spring, 301-593-0015. Hours: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays, 11 a.m. to midnight Fridays and Saturdays. Appetizers, $3.50 to $9.95; entrees, $7.95 to $16.95. Handicapped accessible.
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