I was raised on the best inauthentic Mexican cuisine that Howard County had to offer. Birthday dinners were hosted at La Fiesta, a small restaurant located in the Columbia suburbs that’s owned by an Indian family (“Originally, I was Indian. Now I’m an American who eats—all the time, even at home—Mexican food,” owner Dilip Kapoor told The Sun back in 2000). Or we’d head to La Palapa Grill & Cantina in Ellicott City, where the logo features an oh-so-politically-correct pepper sporting a sombrero and mustache and middle-school-aged me could order an excessively sweet nonalcoholic strawberry daiquiri to go with the chips and salsa. And at home, we’d eat chicken enchiladas made with canned Old El Paso enchilada sauce (mild, of course), doused in shredded cheddar cheese and sour cream and paired with refried beans from a can. It was the most adventurous or international that my family would get with food—just spicy enough to have flavor, but mild enough to be comfortable to my parents’ conservative palate.
So I wasn’t demanding or expecting a particularly authentic experience when we headed to La Tolteca (2324 Boston St.,  617-0959, latoltecamd.com), located in Canton where the Horse With No Name used to be. The large space flirts with garishness: There’s brightly colored furniture painted with vaguely Mayan or Aztec-themed scenes and green margarita mix churns behind the bar, pre-mixed, in fountain drink machines. The whole scene gave me a strong sense of nostalgia for the Mexican restaurants of my suburban youth, which makes sense, given that La Tolteca has five other locations scattered across the Maryland ’burbs. But even given my history with inauthenticity, La Tolteca proved to be less of an indulgence in nostalgia than a disappointment that left me desperately wishing for more flavor.
The menu is enormous, with pages and pages of enchiladas, burritos, quesadillas, fajitas, tacos, salads, and both combination dinners and “especiales de la casa” that combine the different dishes in multiple ways. As we struggled to narrow down our choices, the waitress brought us the traditional complimentary chips and salsa, as well as a somewhat-incomprehensible white dip that we were told was a combination of cream, milk, cheese, garlic, and pepper. Our waitress during our first visit appeared to sympathize with our flummoxed expressions and suggested that we mix the white dip with the salsa, as she’d seen others do. Combining the two cooled off the (already fairly mild) salsa a bit and lent the dip some purpose, but we decided to mostly avoid it and ordered queso dip ($3.59) and fresh guacamole ($8.99) to accompany our chips instead. The guacamole—not to be confused with the guacamole dip ($3.59), listed on the menu under appetizers—was made to order near our table and had a good amount of spice to it, with fresh cilantro leaves mixed in. But while the guacamole was a hit, the queso dip was definitely a miss, pale with a weird sheen and a taste that resembled more of a mystery “cheese product” than anything made of dairy.
The fish tacos ($10.99) were quite good—the three tacos contained bright, fresh-tasting grilled tilapia, with rice, tomato, and a mayonnaise-based coleslaw on the side that thankfully wasn’t too heavy on the mayo. But most of the other dishes we tried weren’t so well prepared. The grande special ($13.29) contains one chalupa, one chile relleno, one burrito, one beef enchilada, and one beef taco, as well as Spanish rice and fried beans, but it appeared to be more concerned with quantity than quality. The enchilada tasted as though the ground beef had been cooked without any sort of spice or flavoring before being wrapped up in the tortilla and topped with a small amount of sauce and cheese. The meat in the chicken taquito mexicano that we got as part of the Guadalajara especial ($11.59), which also comes with a beef taquito, one tamal, and nachos, was similarly dry and unseasoned.
Dry and unseasoned meat continued to be a problem on a subsequent visit to La Tolteca, when we ordered the enchilada poblanas ($10.99). Enchiladas are our go-to for any Mexican restaurant, as we have always figured that it’s impossible for meat baked with sauce and cheese to not be enjoyable. Alas, while La Tolteca’s poblano sauce had a nice savory depth to it from the chocolate in it (though it could have used more seasoning), the chef had been distressingly stingy with the sauce, putting on just enough poblano sauce to cover the top of the enchilada, but no more. There was not nearly enough sauce and cheese to cover up the taste of the chicken, which was once again dry. The menu said that the enchiladas came with a “guacamole salad,” but that turned out to mean a pile of lettuce leaves and a tiny cup of guacamole dip, which, unlike the fresh guac we’d enjoyed before, was mostly flavorless green mush. The veggie fajitas ($12.99), a mix of zucchini, summer squash, onions, tomatoes, mushrooms, and bell peppers, were decently cooked, but, again, were woefully underseasoned—we found ourselves looking around the table, desperately hoping for paprika or at least salt, to no avail.
The sides accompanying the fajitas were the final blow for any hope we had for La Tolteca: The Spanish rice was utterly plain, and the fried beans were pasty and flavorless—an embarrassment, frankly. The canned refried beans we’d grown up eating had infinitely more flavor than these mushy beans. Next time we find ourselves craving a trip down a culinary memory lane, we’d rather head to the grocery store to get that canned food instead. And if you want genuine Mexican food, head to any one of the more authentic, low-key Mexican places in Fells Point.
La Tolteca is open Monday-Thursday 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Friday 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m., Saturday noon-10:30 p.m., and Sunday noon-9 p.m.