A Tale of Two Cantinas
New Mexican hangouts bring memorable food and drink to the grid
By Greg Sabin
Of the many embarrassments of culinary riches we have here on the Sacramento restaurant scene, one of my favorites is the seemingly limitless supply of fantastic Mexican food. In nearly every part of town, you’ll find a bounty of dishes inspired by Mexico and its varied flavors.
In just the past few months, the Downtown and Midtown areas each found themselves in possession of a new and truly excellent Mexican joint. The first, Chando’s Cantina, is a fully fleshed out restaurant built around the tacos served out of Chando’s original stand on Arden Way. The second is Midtown’s Cantina Alley, a colorful, brazen drinking spot with a standout bar and some culinary tricks up its sleeve.
Many eaters around town are familiar with Chando’s Tacos. The humble taco stand on Arden Way near Del Paso Boulevard may be the best purveyor of tacos in the region. It has parlayed its popularity into a near taco empire, with shops in Roseville and West Sacramento and at least a few food trucks prowling the city’s streets.
The new establishment, officially called Chando’s Cantina and Gastronomia Callejera, is a moderately sized dining room on 15th Street across from Music Circus and Sacramento Theatre Company. The exterior is a bit plain, as are the heavy wood furnishings inside. In this day of themes, hooks and gimmicks, the place seems a little bit underwhelming. But don’t come for the décor; instead, come for the stellar food.
The menu is inspired by Mexican street food. (Gastronomia callejera very roughly translates as “street cuisine.”) Here, the street-food staple elote—corn on the cob slathered with mayonnaise, grated cheese, chili powder and lime
juice—is served two ways, on the cob and off, and with your choice of chili powders. This is decadent eating, but it’s so uncomplicatedly steeped in the roots of Mexican street cooking that it feels like a light treat.
Another standout from the street canon is sope, a petite base of masa topped with refried beans, meat or mole, salsa, crumbled cotija cheese and crema. Gorditas, made with similar ingredients but a different preparation of masa, hit the spot.
Another specialty, mulitas, is a quesadilla on steroids. Cheesy and filled with meats, this small treat is a step up from the quesadilla found at snack bars the world over.
My favorite dish on the menu, though, is the pambazo. This sandwich features bread that has been dipped in “Mom’s enchilada mole sauce,” then grilled, then stuffed with all the fillings you’d ever want. It’s an indulgent treat not for the weak of stomach.
In Midtown, another vibe altogether is happening at Midtown’s Cantina Alley. This new watering hole has been shoehorned into the alley between J and K streets (Jazz Alley officially) and between 23rd and 24th streets. The reasonably small confines barely contain the energy and vivacity that the place puts off.
On a Thursday night, you’re likely to see tables jammed, the bar hopping, toasts raised and Mexican tunes blazing over the hi-fi. Every time I’ve been to Midtown’s Cantina Alley, it’s been a joy to just be there.
With almost all outdoor seating, the restaurant makes the most of its space. The walls are garishly painted. Oversized artworks hang throughout the place, each one infused with a healthy dash of ironic self-awareness. The strings of lights hanging overhead bring the type of charm you wouldn’t think possible in an urban alleyway. It totally works.
The drinks menu is special. Watermelon margaritas (served in watermelons!) take the cake for delightful boozy treats. The beer list sports many Mexican beers that are rare, difficult to find and wonderfully crafted.
The highlight of the kitchen is the fish tacos. Cantina Alley’s fish tacos might be the best in town. Full stop.
These gorgeously fried chunks of fish dolloped with crema and all the fixings work beautifully. The flavors, the heat, the crunch and the sauces blend together perfectly. If fish isn’t your thing, the crispy papa (potato) taco is a great example of the genre.