Conceit eclipses cuisine at Urban Cantina
BY ROMMIE JOHNSON
The Tampa Tribune
TAMPA » Downtown’s self-consciously hip new Mexican eatery features a lucha libre mask in its logo, because sometimes you want a juicy metaphor to hit you like a flying dropkick.
Go ahead and overlook the deceptively literal name. Urban Cantina is all style and swagger, flexing its marketing muscle with cultural kitsch and in-your-face attitude that reeks of refried beans and desperation — and barely a whiff of authenticity in the mix.
Yet somehow that’s completely fine. After all, everybody knows you sell the sizzle, not the steak fajitas.
Besides, it’s just Mexican food. Right? With rare exceptions (hello, Red Mesa), we don’t expect tacos, burritos and quesadillas to be elevated to the level of haute cuisine. We crave them because they’re simple, humble, hearty and generally affordable.
By that modest standard, Urban Cantina succeeds despite itself. (Note to ownership: You don’t do yourself any favors by billing the place as a “world class Mexican restaurant.”)
The dining room is a clash of corrugated aluminum and ominous Pepto-Bismol pink, strewn with ostentatious crosses and colorful luchadores’ masks. A few flat-screen television sets vie for your attention but lose out to an amazing lucha libre-themed print by Chris Parks of St. Petersburg’s Pale Horse Design. Cushioned wooden chairs sit conspicuously around the 20 or so tables, eventually proving to be every bit as comfortable as they are out of place.
Cue the gratuitous chips and salsa, along with the attendant conversation about whether watery or chunky salsa reigns supreme. (Urban Cantina’s is the former variety.) Don’t even ask about Jarritos – you’ll have a Coke and like it.
Appetizers — or “Warm Ups,” as they’re called here — include the usual mix of antojitos, such as nachos, quesadillas and chips with guacamole or queso. We enjoyed the Tortilla Soup, a large bowl of chicken and tomato broth that was loaded with shredded chicken, rice and veggies but got most of its flavor from a liberal dash of cilantro.
Although a bit of a mess to eat, we also liked the Tres Sopes, which is sort of like the Mexican version of bruschetta. Crispy corn “bowls” were topped with refried beans, chipotle chicken, lettuce, tomato, cheese and sour cream. It’s tasty and, like most of the starters, big enough to make a proper entree.
Speaking of entrees, ours were mostly solid if unspectacular. We found it tough to nitpick the Urban Carnitas, tender bits of braised pork served with tortillas and fixings alongside the ubiquitous beans and rice. Likewise, the Cantina Fajitas got the job done with a sizzling skillet that was piled high with chicken, steak and a dozen or so tiny shrimp.
The menu offered absolutely nothing for the vegetarian in our crowd, but the kitchen willingly prepared a meat-free burrito that was fresh and filling.
More disappointing was the Carne Asada, a marinated skirt steak served with rice, beans and a cheese enchilada that seemed like an afterthought. We could have lived with the steak being tough (it’s skirt steak, after all) but not flavorless.
And that, more than anything, is the problem with Urban Cantina. For all the bold ambition and blustery attitude, the food is really just kind of bland.
That said, it’s worth saving room for dessert — particularly the churros, which are lightly fried, not too crunchy and drizzled with a tangy citrus sauce that we might order by the bowl on our next visit.
Service could certainly use some tweaks (we’re still waiting for those extra tortillas), but the staff is friendly and generally likable even though you get the vague sense they would prefer it if your table was filled with dudes in skinny jeans and ironic hats.
It’s OK, guys. We fake it, too, sometimes.
Tribune reviewers eat anonymously. Rommie Johnson can be reached at (813) 259-7426.