July 5, 2011 | BITE: My Journal
Cantina: Play by Playa?

Watermelon salad and chunky guac with passion fruit margarita. Photo: Steven Richter

Watermelon salad and chunky guac with passion fruit margarita. Photo: Steven Richter

       Now it’s a surf shack, Cantina by Cascabel. Cascabel Taqueria, born in this same pocketsize space last year, was an instant cinch. First the neighborhood, then the critics, especially me, discovered the bizarro Mexican-masked-wrestler theme, the sweetly caramelized pork belly gorditas and the gentrified better-than-most tacos. The lines stretched out onto Second Avenue. Of course the partners were eager to move to a suddenly vacant corner two doors south with room for table service and a bar.

Small masked wrestlers cling to fish net in the new funk. Photo: Steven Richter.

        For a while the original incubator disappeared behind butcher paper.  Then Mahjong, a United Nations of dumplings, beckoned. When dumplings laid an egg, the exuberant front man David Chiong and designer-back-of-the-house-partner Elizabeth Gaudreau started thinking Mexican again. They brainstormed: funky, relaxed, casual, a feel of vacation. And Cantina emerged.

        Miniature masked wrestlers clinging to fish nets star in the instant makeover. There’s a machine to make frozen margaritas.

A blissfully cool night for sitting outdoors. Photo: Steven Richter

       It’s the same cheerful, lively serving crew, now in beachy cut-offs and tees. Beer 26 ways. Ceviche, pinchos, salads and sandwiches - but no tacos.  Razor clams or prawns in garlic oil, whole red snapper grilled like they do it in Veracruz, briny gestures not found at the corner taqueria. Still cramped, stools at bare communal tables, wispy paper napkins, house made sauces in squirt bottles. And we golden oldies are singing along with the Beach Boys and bobbing our heads to Do Wah Diddy Diddy Dum on the sound track.

Intimations of a surf shack we remember from Playa del Carmen. Photo: Steven Richter

       Of course there must be guacamole. Nobody involved here is Mexican, but Americans who eat all have deeply entrenched ideas about guacamole. Executive Chef Jason Avery cooked Eastern Mediterranean at Pera so he never doubted he could riff on Mexican. “I eat Mexican, I have Mexican friends, I eat at their homes, I read Mexican cookbooks, I’ve been to Mexico.” Okaaaay.  His “Guacamole Traditional” is coarse and garlicky, served with just-baked tortillas left whole. And spicy enough.  I said medium, but probably should have asked for two orders - one hot, one mild - to cater to our foursome’s colliding tolerances. We’re sipping Pisco colada, a frozen passion fruit margarita (I ask for extra lime to make it tart) and a fresh-squeezed lime agua fresca sweetened with agave (but just a dash of agave, Steven insists.) No surprise: we’re asking for seconds on the guacamole anyway. I’d say one smallish portion is perfect for three uninhibited eaters, but maybe not for four.

All six shishitos on the brazier are spicy tonight. Just lucky I guess. Photo: Steven Richter

       Given how cheap things are, $6 for watermelon salad, I suppose I shouldn’t complain.  But hey! Five cubes of melon? Still, I love the combination - sweet crunch of melon, cubes of grainy cotija cheese with pickled watermelon rind and tequila dressing.  I like it better than $7 cornbread panzanella salad, though black bean, corn, tomato, queso fresca and a serrano ham dressing cut through the sweetness of the cakey cornbread.  I am the lone dissenter here, preferring to munch on toasted Peruvian corn snacks -- niblets sprinkled with sea salt.

        We decide not to order the shishito pepper pinchos after all because $6 for three peppers seems insane, but our waiter Benny won’t take no for an answer. He brings them anyway - a pair to a skewer, warming in the flames of a small brazier.  

Sloppy is as sloppy does as we tackle this overloaded hot dog. Photo: Steven Richter

       This is the sloppiest food I have ever eaten. The Senoran Dog, bacon-wrapped frank stuffed into a soft roll piled high with pinto beans, tomato, onion, then slathered with mayo, mustard and more fresh cheese cannot be hoisted up without erupting.  I send it back to the kitchen to be sliced in half.  The Road Food Warrior is still resisting. “How do I pick it up?” he asks. I grab a half with two hands.  I take a bite, lick off some layers and pass it along. “I’m not sure it’s worth it,” he says. I have to agree.

Chile relleno on aluminum tray as if we’re in prison or a school cafeteria. Photo: Steven Richter

       The $12 hamburgesa is a slovenly challenge too, but definitely worth it. Half a pound of “custom ground beef,” the menu claims, perfectly cooked, rare as requested, hides under a deep-fried chili rellano, frosted with a slurp of black bean chile on a brioche with quesa fresca-avocado aioli and chipotle ketchup.  The chef is proud of that rellano: a first in the history of the hamburger.

Sloppy Joe Trio on corn masa cakes is my favorite. Love yucca fries too. Photo: Steven Richter

       My favorite dish tonight is the Sloppy Joe trio on grilled corn masa cakes – achiote beef, house made chorizo, shredded chicken (pollo tinga) - with chipotle sauce and a plop of guac. The kitchen has mastered crisp yucca fries too. I’m dipping mine into aioli with a little chipotle heat.

        Dulce are priced right too, at $3 for a chocolate churro or coconut ice cream. To get to the rest room (for a rest or whatever) you have to go through a door into the neighboring tenement.  “Enjoy” it says as you push through. You can take that as a flash of irony or Cantina’s congenital giddiness.

1542 Second Avenue between 80th and 81st Street. 212 717 7800. Seven days a week 11:30 am  to midnight.


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