Back in January, when I started exploring the plethora of new taco places turning up all over town, I felt that Taco Cantina in the Old Fourth Ward had considerable potential.
Here was a chef from Zacatlan, Mexico, who had found success at his original location in Smyrna, raising the taco flag on Boulevard. And it was just down the street from my home in Grant Park, too. Que bueno.
So I kept going back, trying different cocktails and virtually the entire menu of classic and twisted tacos, from tangy tinga and barbacoa to fried chicken and chipotle salmon.
And then I had a late-breaking epiphany: Chef Adolfo Gonzalez’s tacos aren’t all that extraordinary. At $3.50 to $4.50 each, it’s easy to run up a tab, too, though the two-taco lunch special is a good bargain and introduction to the menu. (For $8.99, it includes black beans and rice and a fruity Jarritos soda.)
What Taco Cantina excels at is good greasy bar food: ridiculous piles of gooey nachos with pulled pork, carne asada or any meat or seafood option you desire. Fiery diablo shrimp drizzled with cooling cilantro tartar sauce and scattered over a veritable Teotihuacan of delicate, crispy fries, with a side of chipotle mayo for dipping. (It’s like Buffalo shrimp, Mexican style, though you may or may not get the side of slaw the menu promises.) Or best of all: Las Cantina Loco Fries, a killer mountain of crispy spuds topped with chorizo, Oaxacan cheese, queso blanco, pico — plus a few wisps of baby arugula and niblets of charred corn to make you feel a little less guilty about the hot mess you know you want to inhale.
So forget the restaurant’s namesake tacos. Give me one of these dare-you-to-finish-it hot cheesy messes or a pressed sandwich. The Torta Cubano (aka Cuban Sandwich) and Milanesa de Pollo rank pretty darn high in the Atlanta sandwich hierarchy. Next time you pass by the cantina, order a torta, or get one to go. You’ll see.
The salsa trio — with so-called guaca, chipotle and molcajete sauces — sounds like a lovely way to start a meal. The only catch: I’ve never met a chip I didn’t like. Except for Taco Cantina’s, which are so lacking in flavor that I wondered if they were even made of corn. Pass.
From earlier visits, I recall enjoying the chorizo taco, with its little chunks of potato and fresh cilantro and onion to tone down the fat. But my more recent experience with the barbacoa (long-braised guajillo brisket with pickled raspberry onions and cilantro) was disappointing. That dreaded texture of dry, stringy meat reminded me of why my grandmother didn’t do beef. The more she chewed it, she said, the bigger it got in her mouth.
Nanny stuck to pork, and that may be a smart approach at Taco Cantina. Try the al pastor taco with pineapple and pickled onions. Maybe skip that chipotle salmon. All the spicy salsa, pico slaw, Mexican crema and lime couldn’t disguise the fishiness of the fish.
From cocktail consultant Thandi Walton’s menu, a solid choice is the Cantina Margarita: silver tequila, fresh lime, agave nectar and a plug of candied sugar cane. Nice touch. La Princesa is another fetching sipper: El Jimador reposado is splashed with OJ, grapefruit, Aperol and blood orange-ginger shrub. A touch sweet, so ask for a salt rim. The Pantera Rosa, silver tequila with bright pink watermelon shrub and prickly pear, beckons for next time.
Honestly, though, if you are going for the salty pub grub that I so heartily endorse, a mug of beer makes for a perfect pairing, and the bar does a nice job of stocking Mexican standards (Modelo, Pacifico, Dos Equis) and local craft brewskis (by Second Self, Red Brick, SweetWater, Gate City and so on).
Back to those tortas: The Cubano is a deluxe affair of slow-cooked barbecue pork, ham, Swiss cheese, chipotle mayo and pickle. The spicy mayonnaise gives it a gentle prick and makes this Mexican-inflected sammie one of the best such tortas in town. The Milanesa — a super-thin, breaded and fried chicken cutlet with lettuce and tomato plus Mexican embellishments (pepper jack cheese, avocado, pickled jalapenos and chipotle mayo) — is another winner. Both are far better than the traditional versions at Cuba Mia.
You can have your torta with fries, black beans and rice (which I find a bit bland), or a house salad. Go for the salad. It’s dressed up with salty sliced cukes, avocado, grilled corn and pico. It’s a refreshing diversion from the decadently dressed sandwiches.
Taco Cantina is trying hard to be a community gathering spot, despite its hard-to-spot and harder-to-park-at location under Tribute Lofts. It brings in live music on Taco Tuesdays and most Saturdays. The drinks are good. And it’s a safer spot for alcohol-wicking noshes than many nearby options.
Sure, the tacos need work, but we haven’t totally given up on them, either. We’ll be back.
TACO CANTINA O4W
11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays. Closed Sundays. 480 John Wesley Dobbs Ave., Suite 12o, Atlanta. 404-963-2146, mytacocantinao4w.com.
Recommended: Loco fries. Shrimp diablo appetizer with fries. Torta Cubano. Milanesa de Pollo. House salad.