(CNS Foodie): After a day spent in East End enjoying a break and a change of pace, my partner and I decided a fitting way to end our little “adventure” was to try out the newest spot in the district, Taco Cantina. Turning into what may very well be the smallest parking lot in the world, we found ourselves walking into one of the most authentic, relaxed restaurants on island.
As we stepped through the screened patio door, we were greeted by buzzing conversations and smiling faces. The dimly lit front patio was almost full this night with couples and families alike.
Unsure of what the seating arrangements were and with no server yet in sight, we headed to the bar to ask. The bartender quickly escorted us to a table to wait for the server.
As we waited, I couldn’t help but take everything in and think we picked the perfect night. There was a good breeze blowing and the colourful papel picados (also known as fiesta flags) hanging from the ceiling swayed gently in the wind. This restaurant is like a hidden gem that only people in the neighbourhood know about.
Our server arrived smiling, menus in hand and after a few minutes of perusing, we decided on a round of drinks and a few starters.
You can’t go to a Mexican restaurant and not get margaritas; we chose the standard ($8) and a spicy margarita ($13). The standard margarita was the semi-sweet and tart mix we all love and was done very well. The spicy ended up being our favourite and we followed it up with two more later on because it was just that good. Although the base is the same as the standard, they infuse the tequila with our beloved scotch bonnet and jalapeños. They’ve managed to give enough heat to keep you wanting more and it complements rather than overpowers.
Then came the starters: queso fundido ($9.50), taquitos ($12) and fresh mahi mahi ceviche ($9.50) were now on deck and we couldn’t decide which to try first. I settled on the queso.
Served with a side of tortilla chips was this small, square cast-iron skillet filled with the colours of the Mexican flag. The spiced chorizo sausage, refried beans, and Oaxaca and Manchego cheeses were topped with a little chopped tomato, cilantro and a couple of jalapeño slices. Digging right in I pulled what seemed like a never-ending stretch of cheese. Underneath the thick bed of cheeses were the sausage and beans. Since cheese and beans are fairly standard tasting (cheese always being a winner, of course) I was really hoping that the chorizo would have helped bring it home but that’s not how this inning went. The dish lacked the spices that the chorizo should have brought to it, so although this is a great sharing plate it just wasn’t quite what we were expecting.
The taquitos, however, were another story. These mini pulled pork-filled flautas were sheer perfection. The crisp outer shell was the right vehicle for the tender and juicy pork. The dish was complemented by the side sauces of green tomatillo and a sour cream-like achiote, both perfect in their own right. The creamy achiote sauce won me over with its slight peppery flavour but both proved a great combo. My only complaint was that $12 seemed too much for only four taquitos; if there had been even two more, I’d feel a little better about the price.
We then moved on to the ceviche. It’s hard to pass on fresh mahi mahi and finding ceviche for under $10, we just had to order it. In a mixture of lime juice, coconut milk and black pepper sat cubes of the fish. The lime helped to cook the tender fish a little while the coconut milk rounded out the acidity. The dish tasted rather plain – not good, not bad, just smack in the middle. It was lacking a little salt and heat which I quickly remedied, leading to a clean plate.
Since we went a little overboard on the appetisers, we ordered tacos for our mains. The list was separated into three tiers: standard, premium and exotic. We picked from each category, ordering four tacos in total.
The gringo taco ($4.50 for one) was crunchy, slightly spicy and overall just a good taco, filled with spicy ground beef, lettuce, two cheeses, sour cream and pico de gallo. The shell was a refreshing change from the standard fried tortilla shells you normally find. These shells had more of a totopos quality, light and crunchy.
We chose the mahi mahi ($5.50) from the premium list, and this was served in a corn tortilla topped with lettuce, fried tortilla strips (think wonton strips) and chipotle ranch dressing. The tortilla strips provided a much-needed crunch to the rather soft taco. I would have liked some pico de gallo to be added for a little more depth and for the chipotle to shine a little more, but it wasn’t bad.
The Korean pork rib ($6.50) off the exotic list was a decent bite, also served in a corn tortilla with a nice, tangy tamarind BBQ sauce. I was a little disappointed as it was supposed to be served on an Asian slaw but instead came on lettuce. The slaw would have really helped complete this dish with some crunch.
Before moving on to dessert I must say that we didn’t have a single bad dish. The starters and tacos were actually all made better by adding their house-made hot sauce, a blend I’ve never had before. Two very surprising ingredients gave this sauce its signature creamy texture and sweet notes — avocado and pineapple. Honestly, I wanted to take it home with me I loved it so much.
We still had room for dessert and ordered the churros. How can you not love these deep-fried, cinnamon sugar-dusted long pieces of dough? They were served with vanilla ice cream and a side of chocolate sauce, and drizzled with syrup and a condensed milk caramel. With their perfect crunchy exterior giving way to a soft interior I was determined to eat them all, but I know how to share so I only had half. They were a nice finish to a lovely dinner.
In the end, we left with two stuffed tummies, one gringo taco and more than half the queso dip to snack on later.
The total bill two at Taco Cantina was $124.78, which included 15% gratuity.
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