The scene is almost surreal for two longtime Baltimoreans as we settle onto our barstools under a canopy of tequila barrels at Johnny Sánchez, the Mexican taqueria inside the new Horseshoe Casino. To our right are chirping slot machines with names like Mystical Unicorn and Boingy Beans, to our left M&T Bank Stadium glowing purple in the distance.
We're having a definite, "Did I swallow the worm?" moment even before our first round of margaritas.
On a rainy Wednesday night, it's hardly a full house at the Mexican taqueria. The clientele ranges from a group of business types in khakis and golf shirts to a table of white-haired AARP-card carriers to two guys outfitted head to toe in Ravens gear.
No one looks like they're expecting mind-blowing gastronomy, which is a good thing, because that's not what you'll find here. The Johnny Sánchez experience is best described as fun dining, not fine dining. But three stars in the Michelin Guide isn't what anyone's after. When celebrity chefs John Besh and Aarón Sánchez devised the concept (the Baltimore location is the first in a chain that now includes a New Orleans outpost), they aimed to create a restaurant that serves "great food without the price tag or attitude."
With those expectations in mind, the duo has largely succeeded. Each of our three visits began with a skillfully mixed cocktail. During our first, we sat in the dining room, a soaring space that's just one component of the 6,100-square foot facility that includes the bar, a lounge, and (as far as we know) the only private tequila tasting room in Baltimore. Latin music spun by a DJ mixes with cheering, groaning, and beeping from the casino floor to create a cacophony of sound. It's seldom quiet here.
We asked our cheerful server if the margaritas were made using store-bought simple syrup. He didn't know—a recurring theme—but was eager to find out. Just under six months old, the restaurant seems to have struggled to find polished help, but it's clear that the staff is hungry to grow. Everyone we encountered, from busboys to servers to bartenders to managers, seemed genuinely invested in our happiness. And our salsa bowls and water glasses were well tended to throughout our meal.
The Johnny Sánchez experience is best described as fun dining, not fine dining. Michelin stars are not what anyone's after.
Turns out the margaritas contain entirely fresh ingredients, including house-made sour mix. Each variety we sampled was delicious. Be forewarned: We almost committed the cardinal Mexican restaurant sin, filling up on addictive chips (from Fells Point's Tortilleria Sinaloa) and salsa.
The black bean sopes, one of five shared entradas, or appetizers, are an intriguing place to start. The bite-sized corn shells are artfully presented and filled with carnitas pork, lime crema, and corn salsa. The ingredients were fresh and flavorful, but, taken as a whole, the dish lacked kick. It could have been bolstered by the serrano peppers served on some of the tostadas. The lobster ceviche with grilled mango was the best of several tasty varieties.
Many items on the menu are priced twice. (Show a Total Rewards card, available for free in the casino, and pay a few dineros less.) Traditional Mexican favorites are the best bets. The tortillas used for both the tacos and burritos didn't overpower meat and vegetable options, including shredded chicken, skirt steak, crispy pork belly with black beans and herbed rice, and more exotic offerings like the slow-roasted goat and pickled cactus taco. Of primary importance, they maintain their structural integrity, always a key factor when eating Mexican food with your hands. Also of note, the kitchen has a winning way with the tasty tostadas.
Especialidades (specialties) are less consistent. Ambitious dishes like baby goat stew in a Jalisco-style broth and redfish stuffed with beans, corn, and habañero cream sauce are complex and reward those willing to embrace the intensity of their textures, flavors, and smells. More basic offerings like roasted chicken and a grilled rib-eye are a bit bland, but a good counterbalance for diners with less adventurous palates.
Cigar-sized cinnamon churros, served with gooey dulce de leche and Mexican spiced chocolate, are a sweet way to end an enjoyable meal. Time will tell whether Johnny Sánchez survives on the backs of the slot jockeys and card sharks taking a break from the tables, or becomes a destination for Baltimore residents who've never rolled a pair of dice. We recognize its potential and admire its attitude, so either way, we're wishing it buena suerte.
JOHNNY SÁNCHEZ 1525 Russell St., 443-931-4575.
HOURS 11 a.m.-11 p.m. daily, with a limited menu between 11 p.m.-2 a.m.
CUISINE Modern Mexican.
PRICE Appetizers $7-8.50; entrees $6-8.50; desserts $9.
ATMOSPHERE South-of-the-border chic.