I don't normally check in with Yelp in the course of writing a review (well, I never do), but after my meals at Andersonville's new Mexican restaurant Cantina 1910 I couldn't help but take a look at what the sheeple were saying.
That's because Andersonville isn't always welcoming to innovative and uncompromising culinary talent. Take the short life of the wonderful Premise, and the self-imposed exile of Pasticceria Natalina and Great Lake Pizza—all oases of creativity and excellence that somehow failed to charm the neighbors. What's more, Andersonvillians can be extraordinarily sensitive when this is pointed out to them.
So I was disappointed, but not really surprised to see folks claiming to have been eagerly awaiting the opening, and then offering the typical one-star complaints about high prices, small portions, pretentious dishes, charges for chips and salsa, the presence of headcheese, the absence of rice and beans, and goddamn it to hell where is the margarita list? These are grievances indicative of the sort of people whose assumptions about Mexican food are framed by Taco Bell on the low end and Uncle Julio's on the high.
You should make no assumptions about chef Diana Dávila's food. Raised around her family's south-suburban taqueria, she found early success in the executive position at her parents' upscale restaurant in Oak Forest, Hacienda Jalapeños. After that she cooked around town in various well-regarded spots—Butter, Courtright's, Boka—before relocating to D.C. for a half-dozen years.
Whatever happened in the interim, she's returned as a chef full of surprises and ready to upend expectations of what Mexican food has to be, with a keen sense of what works, and the superb raw materials to make it happen. The servers at Cantina 1910 come equipped with the familiar spiel about the food being traditional Mexican with a midwestern farm-to-table MO, but the resulting suspicion that the food will be dumbed down for the flavor averse is never realized. Dávila pulls no punches when it comes to heat levels and intentionally bitter notes, and knows how to balance them with bright and assertive flavors. Take the esquites: a bowl of large and small corn kernels, rich with brown butter spiced with morita chiles, a hint of musty epazote bitterness, and thin slivers of brittled lime crumbled into the mix to add acidity. Or the guacamole: pristine ripe, creamy fruit crushed and laid out in a neat rectangle like an avocado sheet cake, topped with shredded raw rutabaga and microgreens, and accompanied by sturdy tostaditas, fried in beef fat and coated with a thin sheen like a glazed doughnut.
Challenging proteins balanced by bright acidic notes contribute their bold flavors to items all over the menu, such as a plate of nachos, stacked like an Aztec pyramid, its levels loaded with thick, dark chili enriched with pig's blood, pickled jalapeños, and thinly stripped fennel lightening the load. With her puerco en cazuela standing in as a kind of Mexican cassoulet and loaded with rare pork loin, carnitas, chorizo, and chewy strips of skin, Dávila demonstrates that the snout-to-tail ethos needn't be limited to Eurocentric beer halls. And in lieu of three varieties of fish ceviche, the chef presents thin sheets of cured beef heart with diced turnip and green apple, all drizzled with cured egg yolk. Similarly, a mix of braised oxtail and pickled mushrooms is bedded on a soft tortilla permeated with the rich flavor of bone marrow; meaty goat chorizo and mashed potatoes are considerably buoyed by a bright verdant herbal huatape verde sauce, while carne asada tacos are emboldened with the addition of chicken liver.
Now let's look at those tacos, a point of controversy, with complaints ringing in the Yelposphere that they're too small. Nonsense. The admittedly dainty but wonderful house-made corn tortillas are fairly overburdened with, say, grilled fish, sour red cabbage, chayote, and red salsa, or adobo-saturated al pastor lightened with tomatillo and wheat grass. The simple solution here would be to provide an extra tortilla.
Dávila presents a wide range of plating styles, from her fairly abstract arroz negro, swipes of inky black rice crossed with a kind of finely diced squid salsa garnished with bitter celery espuma and corn-infused crema, to a plate of simple greens atop thick smears of green goddess dressing with sprouted beans.
There's one real outlier on the dinner menu at Cantina 1910, one that should be reserved for a dedicated visit. It's a towering sesame cemita, a sturdy construction of black beans, crispy fried chicken milanesa, al pastor, and a thick, gelatinous slab of headcheese, garnished with smoked pasilla chiles, Oaxacan cheese, onion, avocado, and a hit of the herb papalo. This is one for the Sandwich Hall of Fame, and a poster child for the ample portion sizes across the menu.
Pastry chef Andrew Pingul has a wide range too, with warm churro loops and classic panaderia-style conchas for breakfast but also more upscale takes on familiar desserts, like a firm but still milky tres leches cake with dollops of boozy cajeta and thick corn-chip-infused whipped cream, or simpler sopapillas—tiny pockets of sugared fried dough meant to be dipped in dark molten chocolate with a scoop of tangy whipped honeyed goat cheese.
Cantina 1910 makes at least one compromise. Due to popular demand, a margarita was added to the ambitious cocktail menu, but it's unlike any you've ever had. Boozier and yet mellower than the typical sugar bomb, it gets its acidity from lime cordial rather than juice. Beverage director Michael Fawthrop has put together an equally appealing list of cocktails, from the Jacko's Ponche, a smoky mescal potion imbued with cranberry vapor, to the bittersweet tequila-based Meloncotes, and even a sweet and easy Tequila Daisy that ought to appease anyone looking for something more kiddielike.
Cantina 1910 is an ambitious project, two floors and a rooftop garden serving three squares a day, plus a weekend brunch featuring dishes like satiating, fiery huevos motulenos, big bowls of squash blossom chilequiles, or fried chicken and churros. It's easily one of the best new restaurants of the year—Mexican or otherwise—and there's no reason it shouldn't be packed all day long. Andersonville, if you can't support it there's no hope for you. v