First look: Cantina Taqueria

Plus a visit to Bole, new Ethiopian in College Park

“Go ahead,” I said to our friend Rose. “Eat the 5-lb. chihuahua. It’s Valentine’s Day. Go ahead.”

We were at the new Cantina Taqueria & Tequila Bar (3280 Peachtree Rd., 404-892-9292) in the Terminus complex at the corner of Peachtree and Piedmont roads. This is the latest venue that Tom Catherall of Here to Serve has opened in his burgeoning chain of themed restaurants. This one replaces the earlier Italianesque Lola.

“The Whole Chihuahua” is a specialty of the new restaurant. It’s a burrito stuffed with roasted pork or chipotle chicken, “gringo cheese,” shredded lettuce, salsa verde, rice and beans, sour cream and guac. “If you finish it by yourself in one hour,” says the menu, “you get a free t-shirt and the burrito’s free too.”

That was just one strange moment of several during our dinner on Valentine’s Day. Although the restaurant’s web page promises “authentic” Mexican cooking, the menu by and large is quite far from that – unless you think Mexican pizza and hard-shell tacos filled with hamburger are authentic.

Our difficulties began even before we started eating. I’d made reservations and the restaurant was easily half-empty when we arrived. But we were seated at a table right next to the doorway to the open kitchen. Clanking plates and spirited chatter made the spot unpleasantly noisy. There was no light above the table, just the glow of the kitchen.

We asked to be moved to one of the many open booths or tables. After two consultations with people in charge, it was decided we could move. The host apologized to the server, who was good-natured about losing a table. He told us he’d wait on us next time we visited.

Sorry. There won’t be a next time.

The meal was a bust from the beginning. I ordered jaiba – crab fritters with avocado aioli and sweet and sour chili sauce. They were beautifully plated and pleasantly redolent when they arrived at the table – redolent of hushpuppies, but not nearly as good-tasting. The dense, doughy fritters did not yield a single taste of crabmeat, just a vague stringy texture here and there.

We also ordered the ceviche, It was a generous serving of shrimp, fish and tiny scallops marinated in lime and orange juices and mixed, typically with tomatoes, red onion, celery and cilantro. Like the fritters, it was lovely to look at, but lacked both citric intensity and fresh seafood flavors. Seriously, skip it.

We moved on to entrees. I was beginning to wonder what the restaurant would do with my order of chicken mole – my usual test of Mexican kitchens claiming to be “authentic.” Well, it was an absolute first for me. Our server brought a huge bowl of mole to the table in which were submerged a leg and a thigh. I give the restaurant credit for serving a decent mole, but I’ve never been asked to eat it like soup before. I quickly ate the chicken, rolled into flour tortillas, and pushed the bowl aside. The server asked if I wanted to take the rest of the sauce – most of it – home with me. No thanks.

The best flavors of the evening were provided by our friend Rose’s posole verde, which I think I’ve had at Catherall’s restaurant, Noche, in Virginia Highland. Oh. Unfortunately the classic soup of stewed pork and hominy was served cold. Rose returned it to the kitchen and the server brought out another bowl that was perfectly…tepid. I’m not kidding. But it did taste good.

The worst dish of the evening was Wayne’s chorizo pizza – a pizza made on a whole-wheat tortilla. The sausage was greasy (as were the chips served at the meal’s beginning). The pizza itself was limp, literally could not be picked up without falling apart. I did think the tomatoes in the salsa atop the pizza tasted good. Hey, I’m trying to think positively.

Dessert was equally blah. My blueberry “upside down cake” was hyper-sweet. Rose did seem to like her Kahlua cheesecake with a brownie crust.

The restaurant is inexpensive – most dishes are under $10 – but it’s pretty obvious that the real intention here is to sell tequila. Wayne downed a prickly pear margarita but it would take more than one to make that pizza taste acceptable. Where is Tom Catherall, the brilliant chef?

Real food

On a tip from Jennifer Zyman, we gave a new Ethiopian restaurant a try last week. Bole (1640 Virginia Ave., 404-549-9111), according to the incredibly hospitable owners, takes its name from the Ethiopian word for the area around an airport.

The restaurant is located in what appears to be a mainly abandoned strip mall and it has taken over a truly huge space. The main dining room, with a coffee bar, doesn’t seem so large, but wander through a door and you’ll find yourself in a gigantic, mirrored room with more tables, all with red-and-white checked table cloths. There’s yet another room through another door. Recession lease.

Bole has been open about three weeks and, if you’re into Ethiopian dining, it’s worth a visit. We thoroughly enjoyed the two charming women in charge and the food was mainly very tasty. As I’ve written many times before, I’m not thrilled to eat with my right hand, picking up morsels of various stews with the spongy, slightly sour injera bread. I think Wayne likes it because I always get over it rather early-on, leaving him with a huge feast.

We ordered three dishes – classic doro wat, lamb cubes and a veggie combo platter. The kitchen arranged all of them on a single injera-lined platter. My favorite by far was the doro wat, which is chicken stewed with red pepper, garlic, onions and spiced butter. Served with boiled eggs and cheese salad, it was tingly-hot but not unmercifully so.

The vegetables included collards, split chickpeas, potatoes, salad and a couple other items. My least favorite was the lamb, which had a strongly gamy flavor. Next time, I’ll do beef. Or maybe I’ll stop by for breakfast and try the scrambled egg dishes.

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