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Viva la Cantina 

Cantina Mexicana has tacos aplenty, with a good ratio of flavours and ingredients.

click to enlarge Cantina Mexicana’s taco combo lets you pick the toppings. - GEORDON OMAND
  • Cantina Mexicana’s taco combo lets you pick the toppings.
  • Geordon Omand

It's a dreary east coast afternoon. A mist hangs suspended in the crisp air and I can feel myself displacing it as I walk past the Public Gardens. I'm in need of a hot lunch and I know just where to find it.

Cantina Mexicana's (1551 South Park Street) bright colours beckon at me from across the street. The new Mexican restaurant has been open since May and I've yet to try it out.

Entering the Cantina, the restaurant is festooned in vibrant Mexican paraphernalia. Window borders of Mayan figures. Sombreros on the wall. Inflatable Tabasco bottles. A caricatured mural of ancient Mexico. Seating consists of red and yellow button-top, red-legged bar stools and a variety of wooden lawn furniture.

Separately, each design element seems tacky, but the overall effect---while overplayed and chaotic---creates a warm atmosphere. Upbeat Latin-style music plays in the background.

I make my way to the counter at the rear of the restaurant where I opt for the three taco combo ($8.26), two flour tortillas (chicken and veggie) and one corn (pulled pork). A fresh fish filling---haddock today---is also available. On all, I add a healthy helping of rice, black beans and roasted veggies.

Proceeding down the Subway-esque line, I select my fillings from the assortment of taco topping accoutrements. Cheese, tomato salsa, lettuce and cilantro all make the cut. Guacamole is included in the vegetarian option so I eagerly consent to a big spoonful.

Cantina Mexicana has four varieties of hot sauce: from mild to hot they are pico de gallo, red salsa, green salsa and xnipec sauce. I request the red salsa, wanting some heat but still partial to tasting my food. It's a medium blend of roasted tomatoes, chillies and lime, and ranks a two out of four chillies on the in-house spice spectrum.

Before finding a seat I ask my cheerful taco technician how he enjoys the food. "I'm not sick of it yet, which is a good sign!" he says.

First up is chicken on a flour tortilla. The first bite impresses me. The key to a fine taco is a good ratio and these flavours blend deliciously. The tortilla is pliable and moist, crucial for the overall experience. Nobody likes a dry tortilla.

Next up is pulled pork on a corn tortilla. As I pick it up, the entire wrap breaks apart in my hands, sending me to the front for napkins and a fork.

The corn taco is dry and falls short of the authentic Mexican taste. This is far from revelatory---I've yet to find a corn tortilla anywhere in Canada comparable with the Mexican quality.

It's time for the veggie option, which does not disappoint. As something of an avocado aficionado myself, I am delighted to find the guacamole uber-tasty. The chunky quality lends the spread a pleasing texture, and the citrus doesn't overpower the natural taste. Keeping the cilantro to the side is a considerate move in accommodating those who haven't developed a taste for the polarizing herb, curious creatures that they are.

Overall, eating at Cantina Mexicana is an enjoyable experience. While I suggest avoiding the corn tortilla, the flour options provide a soft and savoury backdrop to a pleasing blend of flavours. Though chaotically designed and epileptically decorated, the setting creates a bright, fun feel without taking itself too seriously. The friendly staff are icing on the Mexican cake.

"Hasta Luego," a sign tells me on the way out---"See you soon." With a full and happy stomach I re-emerge into the rain, thinking that "soon" may just be right.

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