Joining an eager crowd this past weekend, we took a first look at Midtown’s Cantina Alley, a new Mexican cantina in Jazz Alley (between J & K and 23rd & 24th streets). While the official Grand Opening is not until May 5, last week’s soft opening welcomed the first wave of crowds to the latest addition in Midtown’s arsenal of unique cuisine.
When you first start walking down Jazz Alley, you may think to yourself “where is this place”? Do not worry – you cannot miss it once you get close. The Cantina is in a converted backyard and is an open-air concept. Most of the tables are out in the open with a bar and a few more tables under the covered portion (that also has a closeable garage-type door for when it rains). The owners are trying to create the feeling of being in Mexico, and our party thinks they have largely succeeded. The five of us were all in Mexico a week prior, so we had fresh memories to compare.
There are a couple larger tables (we sat at one, and had room for one or two more), a few four person tables, some two person tables, and some single spots along the wall and at the bar. It is a fairly small space – I am guessing it seats maybe 40-50 at most. We got there a little after 5:00 p.m. on a Tuesday and there were only a couple others in the Cantina. Within 10 minutes, though, the entire place was full with more people waiting in the alley hoping to get a seat. I have never seen a place go from zero to full so fast! That, of course, put a lot of stress on the kitchen and servers, with everyone ordering at about the same time. While they did get in the weeds a bit, the wait was not too long as they got caught up. We were all willing to overlook the slight delays because it is still a soft opening, and because they got slammed all at once.
The owner says they will have an expanded menu highlighting Pueblan cuisine. For now they have a limited street food menu, but what they have is excellent. We tried the Elote (grilled Mexican street corn coated with cotija cheese, mayo cream, and Tajin – a Mexican spice blend with flavors of chilies and a hint of lime), and three of the four taco varieties (arrachera, al pastor, and baja/fish). We did not try the crispy papa tacos or the pozole verde. (Next time!) The feeling was unanimous that the baja fish tacos were the best of the bunch. They used red snapper (instead of the lower quality tilapia you find at many restaurants), a house white sauce that had a nice tang, and two different salsas – a mango avocado salsa and a jalapeno-cilantro salsa. For those who do not like heat, do not worry. The jalapeno-cilantro salsa was very mild with only a hint of heat. Our resident “I can’t do spicy!” friend was able to eat them with no problem. The tacos are larger than a street taco with house-made tortillas that aren’t too big – the taco ingredients take center stage. The other star of the menu was the elote. You would be doing yourself a disservice if you do not order a piece of this delicious corn on the cob. If you have never had Mexican street corn, here is your chance.
The drinks were a mixed bag, but mostly excellent. In fact, all were very tasty, but I will get to my one minor gripe in a moment. They currently offer a few Mexican micro-brews on tap. They had Agua Mala Sirena Pilsner, Border Psycho La Perversa (double IPA), Border Psycho Americano Ale Lager, Fauna Lycan Lupus (IPA), and Wendlant Hann Zomer (saison). All beers were $7. Their mixed drink menu consisted of the Cantina Margarita (blanco tequila, fresh lime juice, and organic agave nectar), Mezcalita Al Pastor (fresh pineapple, fresh lime juice, Tajin, cilantro, and Joven Mezcal), Michelada Puerca (house made spice mix, fresh lime juice, Coronita, and pork rind), and Sangria Del Callejon (Alley) (California blend merlot & cabernet, seasonal fruits, premium juices, and brandy).
We tried the margarita, mezcalita, and sangria. All were excellent. Very flavorful, and you could really taste the fresh juices used to make them. The prices range from $7 to $10 (the three we ordered were $9 and $10). That is the minor issue I had – the pricing. The food prices were good, but the drink prices were a bit high considering they were served in short cocktail glasses. Fresh ingredients cost more, but I still feel they are overpriced by a dollar or two per drink. Time will tell if they make adjustments prior to the Grand Opening.
Overall our party was very impressed with Cantina Alley, and we are looking forward to seeing where they take the menu down the road. This is going to be a very popular spot during the summer, so get there early to grab a seat!
For more information on updates, visit CantinaAlley.com