Alibi V.27 No.51 • Dec 20-26, 2018 

Restaurant Review

Nuevo Mexicano Done Right

Cantina Nueva’s fresh and modern take on New Mexican

Trio of tacos with Spanish rice
Trio of tacos with Spanish rice
Eric Williams Photography
Garduño’s has been around long enough and developed enough of a reputation that it’s become something of an Albuquerque tradition in its own right. The local restaurant chain has been serving classic New Mexican dishes and a broad menu of margaritas since the first location opened in 1981. Knowing that this continued success meant they’d struck upon a good formula, the Garduños parent company, Southwest Brands, opened a new restaurant this summer in the Northeast Heights called Cantina Nueva. In the North Towne Plaza shopping center with Whole Foods and Chico’s, this neighborhood fast casual restaurant and tequila bar has found a welcoming audience of diners who no longer have to drive into town for good tacos and margaritas.

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.

Messy and delicious avocado toast
Messy and delicious avocado toast
Eric Williams Photography
There are some great entrées on the dinner menu like a chicken molé enchilada ($13) that’s earthy and a little sweet with tart crema on top. The burrito magnifico ($18.50) is filled with half carne adovada and half short rib that’s cooked in red chile. The seasoning is enough that it doesn’t really need a chile smothering—but it certainly won’t hurt. That said, for my money it’s the tacos that really make Cantina Nueva. The little street tacos on corn tortillas pull out all the stops in terms of flavor and texture combinations, like the tempura avocado taco with a smoky chipotle aioli and calabacitas. I could eat that every day and not get tired of it. But if I were to get tired of it, I’d go for the chile glazed pork belly taco ($3), or the jack fruit ($3) instead. All their tacos are piled high with microgreens and cilantro, and each of them has that one element you didn’t expect that elevates it: crispy-fried onions on top for crunch, pickled red cabbage or an herby, creamy sauce that adds a lighter note to smoky carnitas. As a Texan I have to compare them to Torchy’s Tacos, which were always my favorite growing up. Although some people use the term “designer taco” in a derogatory sense, I’ve always been a fan of these experimental and over-the-top creations in tortillas.

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.

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Cantina Nueva

5935 Wyoming Blvd. NE
508-4671
cantinanueva.com

Hours: Mon-Thu 11am-9pm, Fri-Sat 11am-10pm, Sun 10am-9pm
Vibe: Friendly, casual and a good happy hour haven
Alibi Recommends: Any of the tacos, red chile mango margarita and the avocado toast