Posted by Tegan O'Neill
People talk and laugh as they scoop salsa onto chips made in-house. Tattooed waitresses man the retro-outfitted dining space like its nobody's business and lively tunes give the atmosphere an upbeat rhythm. Candles in small metal cans flicker on the tables and bounce shadows off the dark wood interior and the antique tin ceilings above.
Cantina serves traditional Mexican-inspired fare (read: tacos, burritos, enchiladas), but they notch up the menu by infusing a twist of creativity into each dish. Take for example, the guacamole. Usually guacamole is simply a mishmash of avocado, tomatoes, onions, and spices. At Cantina, order the Seasonal Guacamole and it comes with goat cheese, pears, and toasted pistachios - a stroke of gustatory genius. At first the stage is dominated by the rich taste and texture of avocado. Once the intensity of the green vegetable subsides, you are left with only the mellow goat cheese to melt in your mouth. It is amazing how the two different taste sensations can stay distinctly segregated and yet blend into bliss. The subtle flavor of pear is not strong enough to fight its way through the avocado and goat cheese but the small pieces do add a cool, smooth texture.
Lemon and cilantro lace the salsa accompanying the complimentary turret of chips. It is a light and airy salsa that carries with it a spicy kick for good measure. On salty tortilla chips, it is irresistible. Take a chip, dip, repeat.
The soft, chewy duck taquitos appetizer is a comforting pre-entree treat. The tender Hudson Valley duck meat rolled inside each taquito pulls apart like butter. It seems like a natural fit for the succulent meat to be wrapped in a tight blanket of fried tortilla shell. The black-berry habanero salsa served on the side was rather watered down and seemed to have missed the memo about delivering heat but the taquitos themselves are enjoyable enough even without a dipping sauce.
The gigantic SF Mission Burrito is worthy of the praise it garners on the ever handy restaurant rating source, Yelp. The reviews on Yelp about Cantina yo-yoed up and down from positive to negative, but consensus was consistent about the burrito: it was huge and it was good. I recommend choosing the adobo pulled-pork option. The heavenly flavor of the pork lands smack dab between savory and sweet. Packaged inside a fresh flour tortilla, it serves up the best of both worlds. I would not have minded if Cantina had skipped the lime-zested rice and Tecate-simmered black beans also stuffed in the burrito since they stole some of the show away from the meat.
Although not home made, the tortilla tasted like it was pounded out of flour just seconds ago. It was thin and light but sturdy enough to preform its function and tore apart easily so as not to delay enjoyment of the pork for even a moment. With a dollop of sour cream and a tease of cilantro, the whole dish is lovely.
Often a heavy hand with cheese on classics like enchiladas is the downfall for Mexican restaurants. At Cantina, the cheese on the chicken enchiladas verdes was not overpowering; instead, the amount of creamy Chihuahua cheese sauce that topped the enchilada was just enough to complement the enchilada's other flavors. Tender chicken and a soft tortilla shell gave this dish the qualities of good comfort food. The salsa verde was tame in terms of spiciness but not devoid of flavor, although a bit too salty. The refried beans on the side had a consistency that suggested the beans had been mashed, beaten, and blended before being re-fried. They too were loaded with salt. The smoky spanish rice mysteriously (and wonderfully) had plenty of flavor while still maintaining a level of simplicity.
At Cantina, the portions are large and the food is fairly heavy. The best approach is probably to share entrees since plodding through one gigantic portion might get old by the end. The meal itself is more than filling but don't worry about saving room for dessert. The main event at Cantina is clearly the savory and the spicy not the sweet. I was curious about the fried ice cream but the novelty wore off after the first bite of ice cream cased in chewy fried dough met my mouth. The texture, a conglomeration of cornflakes (that were more soggy than crispy) plus dough, plus ice cream, plus a superfluous helping of lackluster whipped cream seemed like an insult to the purity of vanilla ice cream.
The chocolate hazelnut churros proved more enjoyable. Still warm, lightly dusted with powdered sugar, and peppered with tiny slivers of hazelnuts, the churros delivered an excellent end to the meal. They did not at all need the accompanying ultra-sweet chocolate dipping sauce. The robust flavor of hazelnuts and the savoriness of fried dough dominated the taste of sugar which seemed a fitting end for the meal as a whole. Anything too sweet would have seemed out of place after such a filling and satisfying spread of good Mexican food.
To read more of Tegan O'Neill's outings visit her blog.