I grew up in Baltimore, but have not lived there regularly since I left for college. I currently live in Bethesda, and my parents and friends still live in Baltimore, so I stay somewhat current on the Baltimore Restaurant scene. My parents took my wife and I out to dinner for our anniversary to Tios on Saturday night. After hearing every one of my friends rave about how good it is, as well as others, we were very excited to eat there. We have been to Spain, and enjoy Jaleo tremendously, as well as several other top notch Spanish restaurants in other cities, so our expectations were admittedly high going into it. The best way to describe our meal there on Saturday night would be one shock and disappointment.
We actually were seated at the time which we made our reservation, which I have been told is a rarity. We sat at the table closest to the door and hostess stand, and soon began to understand why people complain about the wait. By 7:30, the entire bar area was packed with people waiting for their tables. I can only assume this is part of the general atmosphere of mediocrity that people have grown to tolerate with this restaurant.
As soon as we were seated, we ordered Sangria, and it came relatively quickly. That would be the last time I could describe that any time during the rest of the meal. We then had to wait approximately 25 minutes for our waiter to return to take our dinner orders. Being it was a very busy Saturday night, I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.
The appetizers appeared rather quickly. I had the gazpacho, my wife the shrimp and garlic sauce. The last time I ate at Tios was my senior prom in high school, about 10 years ago. At that time, my idea of a gourmet meal was veal parmagiana. I was not a big fan of Tios at that time, but I do remember really loving the gambas al ajilla. I would also say its one of my favorite Spanish tapas. Most shrimp and garlic sauce dishes Ive had are some type of olive oil cooked with garlic, and then the shrimp are added. The version at tios was some type of thick brown sauce. I enjoyed their version, but it would have been hard not to with the amount of garlic and butter they put in the sauce. The sauce was good for dipping the bread into, however, the shrimp were mushy. It seemed to me like they make a big batch of the shrimp and garlic sauce at the beginning of the night, keep it warm in a soup pot, and ladle out the portions as it is ordered. The gazpacho was decent, but it was an entirely clean liquid (as opposed to a thin applesauce texture of gazpacho I have had almost every other time, including when made at home). We then spent the next 20 minutes (after we had finished all the appetizers) waiting for our plates to be cleared.
When the main courses arrived, I should have immediately sent my dish back. I lay the blame for the overall bad experience partly on myself for this error in judgment. I ordered the fresh red snapper special with parsley, shallot and breadcrumb crust with garlic in a brown sauce (maybe I Should have realized not to order any of the fish specials when every one of them was preceded by the word fresh). When the waiter removed the silver cover from my dish (much like you would see at a banquet). I noticed that a film had developed over the entire sauce portion of my plate (much as one would see if letting gravy stand out, unstirred for a too long). I realized this could not be a good sign for the doneness of my fish. I was correct. The snapper had the moistness of cardboard. I managed to eat the exterior portions, but could eat no more. Again, normally, I would have complained to the waiter, but he was no where to be seen for the next 20 minutes.
For desert, of course we ordered the pine nut cake, which most people described to me as the culinary equivalent of a diamond (at least thats how it seemed). It was good. I enjoyed it, but there was nothing about it that would make me rave the way my friends did (its basically a jelly roll with custard instead of jelly, topped with pine nuts).
Overall, my impression of Tio Pepes was a banquet dinner, or a cruise ship. For those that like big portions of mass produced food not cooked to your specifications, which has not changed in at least 10 years, then this is the place for you. Why people would line up and wait past their reservation time to be treated to poor service and boring food is beyond me.