Ed. Note: As of May 14, FEED TX is no longer involved with The El Cantina Superior.
Every city has its pet hubris. All New Yorkers think they can write, all Parisians think they’re artists, and all Houstonians think they can open a Tex-Mex restaurant. They say to themselves: Mexican matrons do it. So do Greek brothers and ex-Houstonia food critics. Why not me?
One imagines that this train of thought, or something like it, ran through restaurateur Ken Bridge’s head when he decided to open The El Cantina Superior, which sounds like a name that Ponce de Leon might have come up with if he’d discovered the Great Lakes instead of the Fountain of Youth. What Bridge discovered when his Heights eatery opened last July was a fountain of Yelpers, each desperate to out-vitriolize the other.
That is what Yelpers always do, of course, but this time they had a point. El Cantina 1.0 was irredeemably, shockingly bad, almost hilariously so. Diners would lock eyes with fellow patrons across the room and shake their heads, mouths agape. The vast concrete-floored interior, along with the twinkly-lit patio, resembled nothing so much as intermission on opening night of a notorious Broadway flop. El Cantina’s food was execrable, its service the stuff of legend. Parties would be seated at tables and then left to die. To this day, no one knows where the waitstaff was. Diners sold menus to each other on an impromptu black market. The only way to get a glass of water was to trip a busboy. We’re talking bad, people.
To his credit, it wasn’t long before Bridge—who has previously found success with Pink’s Pizza, Shepherd Park Draught House, etc.—realized his latest creation was a misfire. And to his relief, FEED, the team that owns Liberty Kitchen and other local eateries, agreed to take over day-to-day operations of El Cantina. Embracing the role of show doctor with gusto, the FEEDers swiftly ditched the old menu (though one wonders how they ever found one to ditch), did a little redecorating, reimagined the seating plan and relaunched the restaurant in December.
Visiting El Cantina 2.0 recently, it seemed to me that the new creative team has achieved something both unexpected and remarkable: a different kind of flop. Mercifully, the service has improved, but to what end? True, you no longer wait a half-hour for a frozen margarita (15 min. for it to arrive on-the-rocks + 15 min. to correct the error), but that just means that you get to find out sooner how disappointing a margarita can be. Someday soon, hopefully, the bar manager will realize that what tastes like a margarita to him tastes like undiluted margarita mix concentrate to others. Until then, however, expect every upper lip at your table to resemble a rolled-up window shade.
Having been led by a friend to expect “thinny-thin, crackly” tortilla chips, I was dismayed to find that a thorough search of my entire basket revealed not a single chip that fit this description. Indeed, they were soggy to a man, and as thicky-thick as a nickel. (By the way, my friend happens to be a local celebrity, which begs the question of whether El Cantina is holding out on us, reserving the good stuff for the glitterati.)
El Cantina 2.0’s penchant for the whimsical is evident in everything from the bicycle art that greets you at the door, to the menu, a perpetual frustration, as so many items only taste good in theory. The description for something called Trailer Park advertised an enchilada composed of brisket and sausage, which arrived watery and a bit of a mess. The crab-and-shrimp enchilada was similarly flood-damaged, with just three small shrimp to boot.
And then there’s El Jefe’s Chicken Fried Steak, which does its best to desecrate two great culinary traditions. The CFS, coated in tortilla bits, came with guacamole, queso, sour cream—everything but salt. (The skirt steak used in the fajitas was similarly sodium-deficient.) As for the presentation, it appeared that each element had made it onto the plate via an underhand toss from across the room. I’m not one to refuse a dish because of unattractive plating, but I can’t abide kitchen staff playing horseshoes with my food.
Still, for sheer audacity, nothing quite beats the Gorilla-Style Burrito Bowl “Salad,” whose name is just the start of the confusion. Picture, if you will, chili oozing down the sides of what looks like a tortilla-wrapped Duraflame log squatting rudely on a bed of lettuce. The unfortunate woman who ordered the dish, our dining companion, stared fearfully at it for a long moment, knife and fork in hand, unsure whether to eat or dissect. In the end she stabbed the gorilla in the torso and sliced it open, whereupon its entrails—everything from chicken to ground beef to French fries coated in chili—came tumbling out.
El Cantina 2.0 does better with the simpler stuff: queso, refried beans, brisket tacos with corn and queso, ground beef crispy tacos. In each, you catch a glimpse of what an El Cantina 3.0 might be. All that’s needed is further devotion to the basics, and perhaps a dash of humility. Tex-Mex isn’t easy. Nothing good ever is.