Nuevo Mexicano Done Right
Cantina Nueva’s fresh and modern take on New Mexican
For those who live more southerly, getting to Cantina Nueva is a bit of a trek up I-25 and out to Wyoming. It’s smaller than the Garduño’s locations and geared a little more casual in its vibe, with a bar and small table seating area next to the dining room. Around lunchtime and happy hour people gravitate here, sitting at the sunny bar for drinks and small plates. The bar staff is friendly and talkative, and after a few visits I can say that the bar is my favorite seat in the house.
The Cantina Nueva menu features some familiar dishes from the Garduño’s restaurants with some original, more veggie-centric creations from Executive Chef Mitchell Herig added in. The carne asada tacos and the tableside guacamole remain from the classic menu, but some nontraditional and fusion dishes like jicama slaw, jackfruit tacos and coconut avocado ice cream show the ways this place is setting itself apart. Many of the dishes rely on bright acidity and freshness to make them stand out, and a note of smokiness from chipotle, charred peppers or bacon often provides an earthy base note. Seemingly every dish has something fresh and something pickled to make its richer ingredients pop. You can count on finding lighter, fresher fare at Cantina Nueva than you would at Garduño’s, including plenty of dishes that are vegetarian or gluten-free. Which is not to say they’re going for anything like the horrendous “lite” menus of the ‘90s—just that most New Mexican cuisine could benefit from the addition of a little something green, you know?
Another thing that makes Nueva Cantina stand out is the presence of a kombucha tap with three different kinds of GT’s brand kombucha; the only one at an Albuquerque restaurant to my knowledge (I know a couple breweries in town have local kombucha on tap, though). They make a kombucha margarita ($10) that pleasantly blends the tart fizziness of kombucha with Milagro Silver tequila. The rest of the drinks list features other interesting takes like the red chile mango marg ($10), which tastes like a Mexican summer with its red chile rim and fresh mango. You might avoid pairing this one with an already spicy dish, as there’s little relief to be found in this muddled chile-infused drink.
To put alongside some tacos or other sides, I’d recommend the avocado toast ($9), especially when avocados and tomatoes are in season. I know that the avocado toast thing has become such a millennial trope by now, but have you ever considered that maybe it’s popular because it’s good? This one is a tasty mess to eat with avocado three ways on top: thick guac spread on a toasted bolillo, fresh sliced avocado and an herby avocado vinaigrette. There’s also thin slices of watermelon radish, tomatoes and red cabbage teetering on top, with a drizzle of meyer lemon oil. I’ve eaten a lot of avocado toast in my life (not to brag), and can confidently say this is among the top three on my list.
If you’re looking for a more cold weather side dish go for the elote soup ($5 cup, $9 bowl). This creamy roasted corn soup is big on smoky flavor, with a kick of spice from fresh jalapeño. Red onion, cotija cheese and cilantro top it off and give it fresh and salty notes for contrast. This Mexican dish isn’t as heavy on the palate as a corn chowder making me think it’s not cream-based—I suspect it’s puréed corn and potatoes that make the base thick and velvety.
I know some people are a bit purist about New Mexican food and don’t think the classics should be tampered with, but I’ll be the first to admit that my palate says otherwise. Adding molé sauce, tempura batter, baby chard and other nontraditional ingredients to this Nuevo Mexicano fusion is a breath of fresh air. Cantina Nueva has gone in a good direction with their freshened up takes on Mexican and New Mexican dishes, and I think the Northeast Heights will be glad for the new dining options. It’s certainly worth the drive for the rest of us, too.
5935 Wyoming Blvd. NE
Hours: Sun-Thu 11am-9pm Fri-Sat 11am-10pm
Vibe: Friendly, casual and a good happy hour haven
Alibi Recommends: Any of the tacos, red chile mango margarita and the avocado toast