City Paper first wrote about La Sirenita II (3928 Eastern Ave.,  522-5055) a decade ago for Cheap Eats, but we didn't go into much depth. But when we asked restaurateur Tony Foreman (Charleston, Cinghiale, etc.) to name some favorite local restaurants for EAT, our guide to Baltimore dining, he mentioned the Highlandtown spot, saying that, despite its "incredibly kitschy interior" and a "very sort of terrifying plastic menu," he would go back every Sunday for the chilaquiles and the quesadilla with pumpkin flower. We decided we had to go back for another try.
To anyone who remembers the smaller, original La Sirenita on the corner, La Sirenita II is a spacious, bright, and shining revelation, an ideal space in which to spend long summer afternoons feasting and talking over a few cervezas while sitting in chairs with brightly painted folky-looking suns and mermaids; false verandas of cool tiles line the walls; there is a shell-festooned mermaid shrine complete with mannequin mermaids.
We started by ordering three sopes ($2.50 each)-discs of fried bread, topped here with beans, chicken, and beef. "Start" isn't exactly right, since we were already chowing down on perfectly fried chips and tangy salsa fresca. When the waitress brought out the sopes, however, we were immediately transported back to some of the best meals we'd ever eaten in New Mexico, where Jemez Indians would set up stands on the side of the road and old women would dip circles of dough into deep vats of oil and bring them out, dripping with grease, before ladling beans, meat, and green or red chile over them. All cultures have fried bread, but it goes with nothing so well as the piquant spices of Mexican or Mexican-inspired food.
La Sirenita's sopes lived up to our high expectations. The bread had a slight crispness to its surface that allowed it to withstand the refried beans, chicken or beef, and cojita cheese that topped it. Inside, the dough was light and fluffy. But the two salsas-roja and verde, brought out in deep stone bowls-made the sopes rule. The bread created a gold-hued soup for the two complementary sauces (use both!). The red sauce is standard red chile sauce, but avocados and tomatillos combined to give the salsa verde just the right proportion of creamy kick. Throughout the meal, the waitress brought more bowls of these salsas, which complemented everything on the menu.
The only bad thing about the sopes is that we couldn't quit eating them and they take up a lot of valuable stomach real estate when you have the kind of feast La Sirenita was preparing for us.
We ordered beef enchiladas ($10), a chile relleno ($9.50), and three tacos ($2 each). The thing that makes all three of these rather standard dishes exceptional is the quality of the ingredients. The tacos come on fresh house-made corn tortillas that are as good as the famous ones from Tortilleria Sinaloa.
We got barbacoa (beef at places like the much-loved Chipotle but goat here), carnitas (pork), and pollo (chicken). Goat is a great and overlooked meat, and it had the right spice-a little citrusy perhaps-to complement the inherent darkness of the meat, but it was the pork that really stood out. Lean and perfectly cooked so that its juices ever so slightly permeated the corn of the tortilla, creating the kind of synthesis of flavors that can make a meal truly divine. When George Orwell wrote that "All animals are created equal but some are more equal than others," he could have been thinking of this pork instead of a totalitarian state. The chicken-ehh, what can we say? Chicken in most Mexican joints is kind of bland, a gringo's choice, and the rule holds at La Sirenita. The shredded bird flesh was exceptional neither in taste nor texture. It wasn't terrible and if you like your food on the safe side, then it's for you.
Chile rellenos are hard to pull off: There's the problem of getting the consistency of the breading just right, so that it acts as a conduit for the sauce on top to adhere to the stuffed pepper inside. Too often the breading is overly thick and under the weight of the sauce becomes a sopping heap of heavy goo. But La Sirenita got it just right-again, partly because the ingredients were so good. The sauce, we have to say, was the best we've had for a relleno. Instead of a simple red chile-style sauce, this was loaded down with fresh stewed tomatoes, onions, and peppers that suffused the breading and turned it into a savory savior of flavor. The poblano pepper is one of the most flavorful peppers if it is heated just enough to bring out the flavor, and again La Sirenita rocked it. Neither overdone to the point of flaccidity nor entirely raw, the pepper, stuffed with fresh cheese, maintained its crispness while also being suffused with its smoky essence, released by heat. And as always, a Tecate adds the perfect fizz to the kick of the pepper. We'll have another, please.
Pinto beans and rice, as is customary, also accompanied the relleno. The Mexican-style rice was nice-light and fluffy-and the beans didn't feel larded over, as they do in some places. Again, fresh and simply prepared most often wins the day.
The enchiladas ($10), too, were exceptional largely on account of ingredients. The Sinaloa tortillas soaked up the sauce in such a way that they were infused with a pale-red hue (like the injera bread left beneath some Ethiopian tibbs). The three that come with a plate are plenty for almost anyone, and though we are hearty eaters, we ended up taking some of everything home, which gave us the chance to try it again later that night. Verdict: The leftovers are as good as on the first day, except in the case of the relleno, whose deep-fried skin becomes a mess with refrigeration and reheating.
But we knew all along we'd have to go back and try to brunch that Tony Foreman mentioned. Turns out there's no special brunch menu and no bloody marys, but margaritas would do.
We ordered the pumpkin flower quesadilla ($3.75) and it was one of the most original and interesting things we'd eaten in ages-the flowers add an unexpected flavor and texture, somehow both fresh and pungent. The chilaquiles-hunks of fried bread slathered in salsa verde or roja-really absorbed the flavor of the sauce. We tried the vegetarian but should have gone with meat. We also got the mole enchiladas, which were a bit dry and could have used more sauce, and the lengua (beef tongue) taco which is the best, most beefy thing you'll eat this year. And the carnitas burrito (at $3.50, one of the best deals in town) and the chicken and pork tamales were great, even if they could have used more meat.
A fair warning though: On the second visit, four of us got a couple items each, and the whole thing totaled under $40. But our liquor bill for six margaritas and one Dos Equis came to almost twice as much at over $70. (They charged us $7 for a Dos Equis! But they told our fact-checker it's only $3.50. Since drink prices aren't listed on the menu, keep that in mind.) It's a shame, because this is the kind of mega-feasting that is well served by some cold drinks and lots of conviviality.
La Sirenita II is open Monday through Sunday, 9 A.M. to 10 P.M.