Monday, September 1, 2008

Restaurant Review: Cantina

This review originally appeared in Czech translation in the 23/08/08 edition of Lidové Noviny.

There's Tex-Mex. There's Cal-Mex. And then there's what I like to call Czech-Mex.

Unlike Californian or Texan Mexican, Czech-Mex isn't an interesting interpretation of a national cuisine. It's a crude and sometimes inedible bastardization of Mexican food typified by canned ingredients, sloppy presentation, and that old Czech standby, cabbage.

I didn't see any cabbage at Cantina, the Mala Strana Tex-Mex joint I decided to review this week. But there was something much, much worse: squeeze-bottle chocolate syrup. Over turkey breast, rice, and beans.

Mole poblano is a Mexican poultry sauce made with a wide range of ingredients – some recipes call for up to 30 different components – usually including crushed chili peppers, tomatoes, garlic, nuts, various spices, and dark Mexican chocolate. Outside of Mexico, the mixture is known simply as mole, although in Spanish "mole" means "sauce" and can represent a variety of condiments (guacamole means "avocado sauce," for example).

A true mole uses only a small amount of chocolate or cocoa bean; the idea is for the chocolate flavor to enhance the sauce, but not overpower it. The result should be dark and have a complex flavor. It's often difficult to discern the taste of the chocolate at all.

Not so with Cantina's version. After the waiter had brought my very unappetizing-looking turkey mole poblano (205 CZK) – the lumpy chocolate gravy had been carelessly slopped over the turkey and accompanying refried beans and rice – I tentatively dipped a fork into the sauce. It was sweet and chocolate-y. Sickeningly sweet and chocolate-y. In fact, it reminded me of something.

"Chocolate syrup," my friend declared with a grimace as she tasted the offending dish. "Definitely." As soon as she said it, I knew she was right. Not only was the chocolate sweet instead of bitter, but it was chocolate at its very crappiest – straight from the bottle.

If there were any doubts about the mole's major ingredient, those were quickly extinguished when I received my dessert (a supposedly Mexican-style chocolate cake, 80 CZK) and found that – surprise! – it had the same chocolate sauce squirted all over it. Minus the spices and chili peppers, of course.

Yuck. I barely touched that mole, but Cantina's waitress didn't seem to notice. I suppose she was too busy running around the restaurant, trying to serve all the customers who were piling in on a Tuesday night. That's right; even with food this awful, Cantina is consistently full. Luckily, I'd made a reservation, because there were would-be customers lined up at the doorway, trying to fight their way to a seat.

Why is this place so popular? For one thing, it has atmosphere. The burlap sacks lining the ceiling, Mexican music, and ponchos hanging from clotheslines draped across the room give Cantina an authentic flavor. And having been in business for over ten years now, it's established itself as the place for locals to go for Mexican food.

But Cantina is nothing less than an insult to Mexican cuisine (or Tex-Mex, since that seems to be more the style they're going for). The guacamole must have come either partially or completely from a can, because I could barely taste any avocado in it at all. The pico de gallo, at least, was freshly made, but it didn't taste of much. And the tortilla chips served with the two dips were covered in too much salt, as were all of the meats on the dishes I tried. The tacos were soggy, the burrito was sloppy, and the margaritas were overly sweet.

If Mexican food isn't prepared carefully and with fresh ingredients, it can be pretty terrible. So spare yourselves the trip to Cantina and try out Fosil, a small, Mexican-run restaurant I recently discovered on Bělehradská. It's not Tex-Mex or Cal-Mex, but it's simple, good food, real Mexican-style.

If you're looking for Czech-Mex, though, you know where to go.

Újezd 38
Praha 1 – Malá Strana
Tel: +420 257 317 173
Open Mon-Sat 11:30-24:00



Anonymous said...

My god. I ate at Cantina once, had something simple, not bad, but not great. As an Arizonan native, I pride myself on good taste in Mexican food. Sadly, to this day, not a one in Czech Republic has even come close. I am thrilled to hear about a new suggestion which is Mexican-run. I will try it as soon as possible!

Anonymous said...

Well, let's be honest. ANYTHING beyond the ketchup and Doritos that used to be sold here as "chips and salsa" here is an improvement. You can't expect a country that decries ANY spice at ALL cost to embrace even psuedo Mexican food overnight, afterall... And I say that in their defence, not sarcastically.

I'll try Fosil forthwith (and soon, even)...

R. said...

I'm a huge fan of Fosil and if I go there any more I'll literally be a HUGE fan.

Steer clear of the beef dishes. But the chicken mole is fan-fucking-tastic, the salsa is super fresh (with three kinds on offer) and the tortillas are delivered from a Mexican guy who makes them in Munich.

Another suggestion is the home deliver mexican food from Las Adelitas. They don't have a brick-and-mortar shop, it's strictly delivery and call early to schedule your time. Text message them or call 776 805 317 for the menu and the order. Get the Burrito Mixto and thank me later. :-)

Anonymous said...

Just wanted to through my two cents in. Being a former resident f San Antonia, I really mis TexMex and from time to time ( every three years or so find myself at Cantina. Was there in the Spring and have to say that it had not gottn any better over the years. Nothing we had I felt was close to authentic or even good tasting. Service was absolutely miserable. I have resorted to shopping at Tesco and buying the good and making at home. The boottom line, few people living in Prage have ever had really mexican or texMex. So this is what happens. I find the same with Chinese food in Prague. The saddest part is that I have seen little imrpovemtn in Mexican or Chinese over the past 12 years. I have not yet tired the suggestions posted here so hopefully that will change my opinion.

Rory said...

Best 'Mexican' I have had is in Zizkov but i can't for the life of me remember the name... I will get back to you on that. I have been served terrible food at Cantina and never went back.