Calvin Trillin revolutionized American food writing when he rejected "La Maison de la Casa House"-the fancy continental restaurant in every city that people told visitors to eat at but never went to themselves-and started writing about downhome places like barbecue joints in Kansas City. We've come a long way since then, but we still tend to skew high-end when we determine the restaurants on year-end lists and the like. But for our money, Mi Comalito (2101 N. Charles St.,  837-6005) is the best new restaurant to open this year. And as it happens, it doesn't take a lot of money to find yourself feeling like a stuffed and supremely happy gringo as you roll down Charles Street.
Mi Comalito is a small and unassuming place, with rather forgettable decor. There is nothing fancy or chic about the brightly lit room, the children of the owners peeking around corners and a television silently playing telenovellas. Mexican pop music endlessly loops on a three-song repeat (the singer of which three songs sounds surprisingly like Tom Verlaine of Television, for what it's worth). But this little place is precisely what the Charles North neighborhood and central Baltimore in general need: a good, cheap Latin American restaurant.
Mi Comalito specializes in Mexican, Salvadoran, and Honduran food, and it would be difficult to say which is more authentic to the cooks, because they do all three as well as anyone else in town. (They also, bizarrely, have Italian pasta dishes, but we passed on those.)
Start with the pupusas. They have three kinds: queso, loroco (vine flowers with cheese), and revueltas (mixed beans, pork, and cheese). They're $2 each, so you can afford to get all three, and you should because they are equally good, with the perfect mixture of crispness and softness of the corn shell, which leaks out melted cheese or overflows with meat when you cut into it. The cabbage salad adds just the right tang. Two of these suckers would make a great $4 lunch, but they're ideal as an appetizer for your dinner party. And you do need it because the chips and salsa are the only bland, boring, and downright bad thing in the joint (the guacamole isn't very good either). We also ordered some fried plantains ($2) as an appetizer, and they were exactly what you would hope for in such a dish-but cheaper than most anywhere else. (There is a $7 version on the front of the menu that comes with black beans and sour cream, but go to the back page where the side dishes are listed and you'll get more than enough.)
Just as the quality of the pupusas is dependent on the corn tortilla shells, the house-made corn tortillas are the key to Mi Comalito's resounding success. Fluffy, firm, with that slightly toothsome texture, they give Fells Point standby Tortilleria Sinaloa a run for its money-and that is really saying something.
The tacos de carnitas ($9.50) was probably the best thing on the menu and we'll be going back for it often. Served with diced onion, cilantro, and salsa verde, the superbly cooked chunks of pork were succulent and tender but slightly crunchy on the outside, and bursting with a hearty and slightly charred carnitas flavor.
We also got the taco de lengua, or beef tongue ($9.50). It wasn't quite as good as the carnitas, but the crispy seared tongue, with its earthy, iron-filled flavor, brought a welcome darkness to the otherwise bright flavor palate.
Finally, on the Mexican side of the menu, we ordered one of the best burritos ($12) we've eaten in years. I'm not sure what it is about Baltimore, but we make some shitty burritos in this city. It's like no one really knew how to roll stuff up in a flour tortilla in Charm City until Chipotle came to town, and everyone followed their lead by overloading the damn things with dry rice. Mi Comalito is the remedy to the dry, rice-filled blandness we have heretofore called a burrito. Inside, the chicken, beans, and rice blended in such a way that achieved that right balance of texture, moisture, and flavor, all of which was enhanced-as it always is-by a healthy portion of melted cheddar on the outside. You might think that $12 is a little steep for a burrito, but these things are monsters and will probably last you for two meals.
The plato tpico Salvadoreno ($15.99) offered a delicious sampling of Mi Comalito's Salvadoran options, including grilled steak; a pupusa; a plantain; a hard, feta-like cheese; rice; refried beans; and, perhaps most spectacularly, a fried tamale. (They also have unfried tamales, which were fine, but the fried ones were amazing.) Again, two people could easily eat this dish as their meal.
The tacos Hondurenos ($8.99) were good, but not as mind-blowing as the other items we ordered. They were essentially flautas or tacquitos, tightly rolled and fried corn tortillas with chicken, a tomato sauce, cheese, and lettuce on top. The order of two baleadas ($7.99), on the other hand, was a revelation. If God ate breakfast, this flour tortilla stuffed with eggs, beans, sour cream, cheese, and avocado, would be His go-to. It would be an ideal brunch with a nice, spicy Bloody Mary. Which brings us to the only downside of Mi Comalito-they don't have a liquor license. In our minds, it is borderline barbaric to eat food this good without alcoholic libations to accompany it. But they say they should have a license soon. And while the booze helps wash down forgettable food at a lot of the places we go, at Mi Comalito the food helped us forget the lack of alcohol altogether-and it kept our tremendous meal for six under $80.
Mi Comalito is the kind of place that foodies all over the city should celebrate. They noticed a lack in Central Baltimore's cuisine and filled it, beautifully and simply, without fanfare or hoopla. It may not be the place you go on your 40th birthday, but it is a place you will return to again and again.
Mi Comalito is open 10 a.m.-10 p.m. every day except Tuesday, when it is open from 10 a.m.-7:30 p.m.