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 spice.
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 his meal.
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.