Veggie tacos. Courtesy Taqueria Cantina

Belltown Mexican Spot Is Lively, Generous, and Disappointing

While fine for an after-work hang, Taqueria Cantina isn’t worth parking for.

Belltown’s former Lucky Diner has been transformed into Taqueria Cantina (2630 1st Ave., 995-8588), a new spot that is about as mediocre of a Mexican restaurant as its former incarnation was as a diner. That said, it seems poised to serve up the neighborhood after-work crowd with a cheap happy hour menu and huge margaritas. The festive ambience and friendly, if uninformed, service plays to that goal as well.

The menu is massive, which is always a red flag for me. I decided to tackle it by ordering mostly staples in order to have a bar of comparison, starting with the ceviche, which was quite a puzzling dish. First of all, it was a gargantuan portion, which is rarely ever the case with ceviche, since it comprises presumably expensive ingredients like shrimp, fish, and octopus. This was entrée-sized and could easily feed two. Even stranger, this one, which featured only shrimp, had absolutely no trace of lime juice, even though the shrimp were fully cooked. (Ceviche is a dish in which the acidity of the citrus “cooks” the raw seafood.) I concluded that they actually boiled the shrimp and then tossed it with the cilantro, cucumber, and jalapeño. In other words, no citrus marination actually occurred, which makes it just a shrimp salad.

When we inquired about the lack of lime, the server said that because different people make it, it sometimes tastes different. Ouch. She did ask the kitchen, and they confirmed that they’d forgotten the lime and sent out another version doused in it. While it certainly helped, it still wasn’t truly ceviche. The Mexican wings, an outlier, fared better. I don’t think I’ve ever had a Mexican restaurant’s take on wings—the “secret” sauce was rich and savory, and the dish was served with a creamy poblano pepper sauce on the side. They were wings; they worked.

Tacos. There’s about a half-dozen to choose from, each being “street” or handful-size, and we went with some standard-bearers like carnitas, asada, and fish. The asada was pretty disappointing: The thinly sliced skirt steak was extremely dry and thirsting for a heaping dose of salsa, the latter of which was delicious, smoky, and spicy. Carnitas were better, as the slow-cooked pulled pork was a tad juicier. Each came topped with finely chopped onions and fresh cilantro. The fish taco, with one big chunk of lightly fried tilapia, was served over pico de gallo and finished off with a big scoop of guacamole. Because I didn’t order their “Mega Guacamole,” which was a feast for at least four, I was glad to have the chance to try it. It wasn’t the best I’ve ever had, but it was solid. Street tacos are all the rage now, and places like Gracia in Ballard and Chavez in Capitol Hill are delivering inspired ones that are far better than these.

One of my favorite Mexican dishes is enchiladas, and here they have two versions of them: traditional and Mexican. In both, the tortillas are dipped in sauce (either red/rojo or green/verde), and while the former come with melted cheese on top, along with sides of rice and refried beans, the latter are served with cabbage, sour cream, tomatoes, cotija, and rice and beans. I went with the Mexican version and opted for chicken. (You can also get them filled with shrimp, veggies, or pulled beef). Though the chicken was seasoned well, I prefer wetter enchiladas, really drenched in salsa verde—and these were not. Again, you’ll find better versions in town, like at that old standard Señor Moose in Ballard.

There’s plenty I didn’t try, including fajitas, burritos, mulitas, and sopitas—as well as plates like carne asada.

As for the Taqueria Cantina’s margaritas, they do have an incredibly extensive tequila list to choose from—over two dozen—as well as clever add-ons like whole tamarind sticks drinks and large shareable portions. The restaurant also offers a lively interior, featuring a huge Day of the Dead black-inked mural, candy-colored chairs, and papel picado (brightly-colored paper flags) hanging from the ceiling, which may very well be enough to appease locals (particularly since nearby Mama’s Cantina is nothing to write home about). But, if you’re looking for something fresh and above the fray, don’t bother.

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