College towns are often known more for hamburger joints and watering holes than for fine cuisine, and College Park is no exception.
The main shopping area along Baltimore Avenue (Route 1) near the center of campus is chockablock with local and national fast-food chains and a couple of sit-down restaurants. It's much the same mix along Route 1, from Plato's Diner on the southern end of campus to the College Park Diner just past University Boulevard.
Last month's arrival of Los Cabos Family Mexican Restaurant, the latest branch of a small, family-owned chain, is a welcome addition.
This is not Tex-Mex cuisine. It's authentic Mexican fare, offered by the Brambila brothers -- Hector and Jose Luis -- whose family hails from the state of Jalisco, Mexico. The family also operates Mexican restaurants in Seattle, Charlotte and Boston, and considered Florida and Pennsylvania before deciding on Maryland.
"We are more a family kind of restaurant, serving home style Mexican food," Hector Brambila said, a few days after the opening. Los Cabos generally refers to the area at the tip of the Baja Peninsula.
The restaurant's low-slung building has been transformed into a Mexican hacienda, with handsome examples of Talavera pottery in the two main dining rooms and the small cantina near the entrance. When I visited, the restaurant was still awaiting its liquor license. The menu lists a variety of margaritas, including several with high-end boutique tequilas. Brambila said the license should be issued soon.
There are bright planters in the windows and striking Talavera urns in two large niches that separate the dining areas. Rough-hewn wood booths encircle the dining spaces, with upholstered seating in tones of aqua and sandy coral. The tables are tiled. Large metal sculptures of horses dominate the front dining area.
One of the hardest aspects of opening a restaurant is mastering the timing, getting orders to the kitchen and food to the diners. For Los Cabos, Brambila brought with him cooks and waiters from the family's other restaurants and hired other kitchen and dining room help locally. Unlike some new ventures, there are no long waits for the food. If anything, the food might come too soon. On one visit, the main course was brought out just minutes after I had received my tortilla soup.
The very large bowl of soup was technically a cup of soup. All the portions are generous.
Every meal begins with chips and homemade salsa, delivered almost before you can take your seat. The salsa has fresh, ripe tomatoes, onions, peppers and cilantro. It is replenished almost automatically as your reach the bottom of the dish.
Although there are some American or Americanized dishes on the menu, such as Buffalo chicken wings and New York strip steak, Los Cabos features the diversity of native Mexican cuisine. There are the familiar fajitas, enchiladas, burritos and tacos but also carnitas (slow-cooked pork), chicken mole and Baja fish tacos.
The tortilla soup is a good and very filling starter. The rich chicken broth is laden with chunks of white-meat chicken and perfectly ripe avocado, accented with crisp strips of fried tortillas. A cup is almost large enough for a meal itself.
Chicken taquitos are flour tortillas stuffed with shredded chicken meat, rolled to cigar size and then deep-fried. The crisp morsel is sprinkled with shredded cotija cheese, which tastes like aged goat cheese or a mild Parmesan, and served with sour cream and guacamole.
Chile rellenos, which can be ordered as part of a combination plate, are fresh ripe chilies stuffed with chicken, cheese, ground beef or shredded beef. I chose the shredded beef -- long strands of slow-cooked meat with just a few potatoes. A tomato and chili sauce covered the chile rellenos, which were served with refried beans and very good Mexican rice.
Los Cabos' version of Enchiladas Suizas took me back more than 30 years. It's been that long since I had such a good rendition of this dish -- flour tortillas stuffed with shredded chicken and cheese, then topped with melted Monterey jack cheese and tomatillo sauce.
The restaurant's sopaipillas are different from the puffy dough I am used to. Here they are sweetened flour tortilla chips, drizzled with honey and graced with cream espuma (foam). They were a delightful end to the meal.
The menu offers about 80 different dishes, and I was able to try only a few. I'll be back to sample more.
Los Cabos Family Mexican Restaurant 8424 Baltimore Ave., College Park, 301-446-1720.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays. Main courses at lunch, $6.25-$9.99. Appetizers at dinner, $3.95-$9.99; main courses at dinner, $5.45-$16.50. Accessible to people with disabilities.