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At burgeoning Mexican-inspired chain Cantina 76, you can rely on the tacos

Safe Space

Vanessa Wolf Sep 12, 2018 4:00 AM

The new Cantina 76 on Coleman Boulevard is the fifth location in a seemingly burgeoning S.C. chain. With outposts in Columbia, Greenville, and Kiawah Island, the cantina offers "Mexican-inspired" fare, which seems to be another way of saying gringo chow. If flour tortillas filled with pulled pork, barbecue sauce, and coleslaw is what rings your bell, then welcome to the Thunderdome.

The menu starts out with a Chipotle-esque array of appetizers like chips and queso ($4) or chips and guac ($4.50). Other offerings include nachos ($9), a roasted chicken quesadilla ($9.50) and three slightly different salads ($9.50) all made with mixed greens, shredded cheese, and pico de gallo served in a fried tortilla shell.

The menu proclaims that the chimichanga ($9.50) is filled with roasted chicken, refried beans, cheese, and queso. However, mine came chockablock with salty shredded chicken and nothing else. I'm not sure what happened to the rest, but it was missed. After being packed with poultry, the large flour tortilla is folded into a small rectangle and deep fried, then drizzled with queso sauce. It's hard to say if the end result is more salty or doughy. Nonetheless, plated on rice and accompanied by shredded romaine, chopped tomatoes, and sour cream, the dish is muddled and incohesive. I'm not sure I've ever had a burrito filled with nothing but meat, and I'm not sure I'd want to again.

The enchiladas ($3.75) are also unusual. I ordered a seemingly traditional combination of cheese topped with red beef chili. Chili indeed — the sauce is thick, filled with bits of shredded brisket. It's like sloppy joes made with chili powder and the tears of Pancho Villa. Moreover, there's an absurd amount of it, which ultimately drowns out any chance of tasting the mild queso blanco or small corn tortilla.

Things did not fare any better for the shredded chicken and verde sauce variation ($3.75). Forget the bright, roasted pepper-based sauce you know, the Cantina 76 version is grainy and inexplicably fluffy. Once again, there's enough for a village, and the small chicken-filled corn tortilla log drifts aimlessly in a sauce sea. S.O.S.

Considering this is the fifth location, surely Cantina 76 is doing something right?

For starters, the space itself is splendid. Formerly The Americano, the thoughtful remodel retained the large outdoor dining area and bar, as well as the intricate tile floors. They also replaced the extensive turquoise embellishments with a contemporary black and white palette, thankfully removing the retro '50s style swivel seats at the long marble bar. Whether you sidle up to it indoors or out, there are a variety of beers,

wines, and margaritas, including creative variations made with pomegranate liqueur, peach schnapps, and even dragonberry rum.

All that aside, what likely led to Cantina 76's success are their 14 novelty tacos.

Case in point, the Buffalo chicken ($3.25). More New York than Nuevo León, two fresh, breaded chicken tenders are coated in spicy Buffalo sauce and topped with chopped romaine and feta cheese. It's everything you love about sports bar happy hour inside a flour tortilla, plus salty cheese.

The barbecue brisket ($3.25) looks the part. Topped with a simple pico and a slice of lime, it's as close as Cantina 76 gets to carne asada. Although the generous portion of beef is tender, smoky, and flavorful, the bright red, honey chipotle barbecue sauce would be better left behind. Or at least served on the side. Moreover, it would be great if the flavorful brisket were available in other dishes beyond this and the red enchilada sauce.

The basic bitch of tacos, the traditional ($3), comes with ground seasoned hamburger and is topped with shredded cheese, sliced romaine, and chopped tomatoes, just like Mom used to make. Although there's nothing wrong with it, per se, it's also not terribly distinctive from what you can get at the national chain next door.

Meanwhile, the jalapeño shrimp ($3.50) is one of the tastier options. In this case, the flour tortilla is filled with four breaded fried shrimp. Crisp and hot, they're drizzled with a citrusy jalapeno aioli, fresh pico de gallo, and 10 slices of lightly pickled, bread and butter-style jalapenos. Although a few were absolute scorchers, the sweet pickling is a clever touch and the lime aioli helps to quell the fire.

Utilizing four of the same breaded shellfish, the Peruvian shrimp ($3.50) is covered with a mayo-based sweet sesame chili sauce and citrusy slaw. It's unclear what any of this has to do with Peru, but no matter. Highly recommended by the friendly, efficient waitress, it's full of flavor and contrasting textures, and by far the most successful taco we tried.

Runner-up honors go to the chicken teriyaki ($3.25). The same sesame oil-flavored sauce appears here, inexplicably paired with two pan-seared chicken tenders, grilled onions, and feta cheese. Although I don't really get the whole salty cheese thing, the perfectly cooked chicken and caramelized onions combine with the rich, sweet sauce in a delicious way.

Despite its name, Cantina 76 is less a Mexican restaurant than a fusion taco joint. If you long to be transported back to the authentic flavors you recall from your days wandering the streets of Guadalajara, then keep on looking. However, if you're a fan of filling a tortilla with varied foodstuffs from all over the world and getting a hearty portion for the price, then by all means ¡arriba, arriba!