Tuesday, October 27, 1998

Sunny and not

Posted on Tue, Oct 27, 1998 at 4:00 AM

No one should have to make up their mind about lunch while listening to Pat Benatar belt out "Hit Me With Your Best Shot." But we gave it a try at the new Baja Burrito Kitchen at Colonial Marketplace. Standing in the "place your order here" spot by the counter, our attention ricocheted between burritos, enchiladas, soft tacos and quesadillas. And we hadn't even gotten to the salsa bar yet.

Looking past the neon lighting, beach-scene murals and picture windows overlooking the parking lot, we wanted to imagine ourselves on the rugged Pacific coastline. That's where the cuisine takes its cue, from the deadly-hot chilis that grow wild in the desert and the seafood that's plucked from the surf. The menu is not that rustic but has more of a "Cal-Mex" spin: Soft tacos are stuffed with fish, burritos are packed with healthy grilled meats, and beans are stewed, not refried.

After placing our orders, we chose seats and waited just a few minutes for delivery. The "Baja burrito" ($4.95) is a popular item, and it's a chunk of a meal – a steamed flour tortilla wrapped around a juicy conglomeration of char-grilled steak, black beans, onions, cilantro, cheese and sour cream. It was even better after a trip to the salsa bar, which features six ways to pack heat. Our favorite was the "fire roasted chipotle" salsa, a medium-strength version with blackened Roma tomatoes. Do heed the warnings on the labels. The formidable "habañero" salsa glows orange, and one drop is all it takes.

We loved the grilled soft tacos so much that we plan on getting to know each and every one. The best on this day was the "fish taco Baja style" ($2.75), a grilled soft flour tortilla crimped around a fried fillet of cod, topped with shredded cabbage and drizzled with creamy cilantro-lime sauce. Running a close second, "spicy steamed shrimp" ($2.75) were mildly seasoned and fresh.

Unfortunately, the "Baja Kitchen combo" ($6.25) was having a bad day – the grilled chicken strips were dry and uninspired. Had they not been overcooked, they would have set off the rest of the dish, which was a hot and flavorful collection of stewed black beans, seasoned rice and soft flour tortillas.

While Baja Burrito Kitchen's cooking is formulaic, its freshness is without question. Everything is cooked to order. The restaurant is a welcome addition to the Colonial-Bumby area, whether for a quick pit stop after shopping or for takeout.


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