If I had a boyfriend, I’d consider taking
him to Cantina, a Mexican restaurant on the edge of Park Slope.
It’s dark inside. Dampness lurks behind the aroma of chili, and
there’s something illicit about the tables tucked into the dark
corners in back.
If I needed my inhibitions lowered, I’d order the best margarita
available in these parts (not frozen; no salt), and wait two
seconds for its effect to kick in. When I was numb and happy,
I’d untangle my fingers from his and glance at the menu.
I’d notice the standard fare first, feeling a tinge of disappointment.
But then I’d find the chiles rellenos, the special chilis in
a walnut sauce sprinkled with pomegranate seeds and the garlicky
shrimp, and I’d be intrigued.
We’d start with chef Juan Carreon’s guacamole and admire its
jade color against the black bowl. We’d appreciate the perfect
avocados he selected, and the creaminess of the mix with its
fresh notes of cilantro and bite of onion. We wouldn’t mind sharing
it, even if, alone, we’d eat the entire bowl.
We’d find the first spoonful of black bean soup bland, but once
we’d tasted it with the sour cream and a spoonful of the pico
de gallo we’d begin to enjoy it.
We’d be so content sharing a plate of the shrimp with garlic
sauce, a classic dish from Vera Cruz. It’s a big portion of eight
large, perfectly tender shrimp. Hot guajillo peppers and a shot
of tequila give the light sauce a smoky edge, and julienned strips
of fresh, raw spinach, soften as they sit in sauce.
My boyfriend would be blissed out on the food and a couple of
shots of specialty tequila (30 varieties are on hand) that owner
Esteban Chauca stocks. The cheese quesadillas he’d try would
be filled with fluffy, tangy, stringy, Oaxaca cheese, not the
usual, blander Monterey Jack. We’d gobble them up in seconds.
We’d be on a roll and order chiles rellenos, a dish you can find
now and then in New York, but which is usually disappointing.
This is the real thing. Carreon fills a mild poblano chili with
the cheese, coats it in a light batter, then fries it until it’s
crisp. He tops it with a dollop of chili sauce made with tomato,
jalapeno and a touch of the pungent herb epazote. Mild yellow
rice and refried pinto beans that are quietly spiced – yet not
dull – are served with the entrees.
The description for chilis in walnut sauce would sound like too
much of a good thing, but we’d order it anyway, and it would
be luscious. In Mexico, the dish is usually served in August,
around Saint’s Day in the Puebla region when the poblano chili
is available. In it, a poblano pepper is filled with picadillo,
a mixture of ground beef, finely chopped onion, and for this
preparation, a bit of grated orange peel and dark raisins. Over
that is a tangy, nutty light sauce made with farmer cheese and
sour cream flavored with fresh walnuts. Pomegranate seeds sparkle
atop the dish like rubies, their firm texture and tart-sweet
taste complementing the softness of the chilis.
At Cantina, we’d eat every bit then scrape the sauce off the
plate with our forks.
The chimichangas, two fried flour tortillas filled with a shredded
chicken are crisp and the filling is moist and subtly spiced.
Both sauces that border the tortillas – one made with tomatillos
(a mild green tomato with tart taste), the other a smoky red
sauce of tomatoes flavored with chili powder – could use more
Desserts are not terribly exciting. There’s a flan that’s not
bad, but nothing special, and a dish that features triangles
of hot fried tortillas, drizzled with honey, served with a scoop
of good vanilla ice cream and dabbed with fresh whipped cream,
that is nothing to get worked up over.
I’ve driven past Cantina since it opened in June, never expecting
to find such a likeable place. My boyfriend would be happy with
I’m sure my husband would like it, too.
Cantina Mexican Bar & Restaurant
(494 Fourth Ave. between 11th and 12th streets in Park Slope)
accepts American Express, Discover and Visa. Entrees: $9.95-$14.95.
The restaurant serves lunch and dinner daily. For more information,
call (718) 369-5850.