Cantina Mexicana: It’s good, but there’s room for improvement!

Mmmmmmmexican: It’s a type of world cuisine that rolls nicely off the tongue, and makes the stomach growl, all at once.

I love Mexican food: Not the bland, overly-cheesy, North American-styled bastardization of the real thing. But the spicy, good stuff. Like tamales, chile verde, mole, and Cochinita pibil (slow-roasted pork). Oh, and don’t forget the tequila.

There are few places that I’ve visited that actually get it right (one of which is Mexico Lindo).

So I was excited to see that another place billing itself as authentic Mexican cuisine had just opened for business.

Cantina Mexicana just opened last week, and it’s already claiming to have the best Mexican food in Halifax. I think they might be getting ahead of themselves a bit.

Located on South Park St., just up from the Smiling Goat, the space is vibrant and welcoming, with music playing and friendly staff waiting to take your order at the counter.

I had checked out their website before visiting (hey, I do my homework!), and saw that, in addition to a selection of burritos, fajitas, quesadillas, tacos, salads and bowls, they offer a lunch special: “From enchiladas to ceviche, these meals are made daily from fresh ingredients with recipes from our Cantina Mexican cookbook.” Unfortunately, on the day I visited, I asked for the daily lunch special, and was offered a bewildered stare in return.

Okay then.

(Disclaimer: This place only opened a week before my visit. To be fair, there are likely quite a few kinks that have to be worked out. I plan to visit again in a few weeks’ time, but hopefully, feedback like this will help the owners/management sort some of these little issues out).

I ended up ordered the burrito filled with their cochinita pibil ($8.26), which is braised for hours then pulled and marinated in an achiote chile sauce. I also ordered a side of tortilla chips and fresh guac  ($2.95) to share with my friend, and an iced tea. My order came to around $15, which seemed a wee bit steep, but not unreasonable.

I immediately regretted forking over the extra $3 for the tortilla chips and guacamole:

  1. The chips were completely crushed and served in a brown paper bag, rather than presented alongside the burrito, which would be the normal thing to do, really;
  2. The portion of guacamole was super small (it was also served in a plastic disposable ramekin);
  3. The guacamole wasn’t very good. Sorry, maybe it just wasn’t to our taste, but we agreed that it was bland: all cilantro, no kick of lime or even a dash of salt. Creamy, but forgettable. Try again. If you’re going to bill yourself as the best Mexican place in town, you’d better have some kick-ass guac. What’s really weird is that they have an awesome-sounding recipe for guacamole (two types!) on their website!

The burrito, on the other hand, was pretty solid. Filled with rice, black beans, super succulent pork, and a whole host of other veggies I added on, plus cheese, sour cream, and salsa verde, this has some serious potential. Three suggestions to make them even better, though:

  1. Don’t use plastic disposable spoons to fill them. I know you probably just haven’t ordered or received the real ones yet, but it looks bad, and is inefficient.
  2. Wrap them a la donair style, so people can unwrap as they eat and they aren’t as crazy-messy (I’m generally pretty good at politely eating even the messiest of fare, but I failed miserably at trying not to get sauce everywhere).
  3. Grill them. I know you aren’t down with deep friers (big ups on that), but hook up a panini grill or something, and throw the burritos on for a few minutes before you serve them. It would make a HUGE difference. Mine was lukewarm when I bit into it, and grilling it would make sure cheese is gooey and the fillings are warm.

Anyways, I know it kind of sounds like I didn’t like Cantina Mexicana, but I did. I just think there’s a lot of room for improvement, especially before they can honestly say they have best Mexican food in town. I hope management takes note and makes a few tweaks here and there, because it really could make a world of difference!

A lot of thought and effort has gone into their branding:

And if they put as much effort into the execution and food itself, I think they have a recipe for success!

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