A taqueria and tequila bar—could there be a better restaurant with such a concept to open its doors right before Cinco de Mayo?
The space that once housed Nostrano is now home to Canteen Taqueria & Tequila Bar. Food Fight Restaurant Group’s 20th restaurant opened May 2 for lunch and dinner in the historic Jackman building downtown just off Capitol Square at 111 S. Hamilton St. Opening its doors just in time for the May 5 celebration of the Mexican army prevailing over French forces at the Battle of Puebla, this is a lively spot to indulge your senses in everything there is to love about Mexican food and drink. Prior to the grand opening, the Canteen team hosted a soft opening serving a few items off the menu and happy hour drinks. Those who had dined at Nostrano know the corner space was a cozy one, and it has further been dwarfed by major construction of the AnchorBank building at 25 W. Main St. Not much has been done to alter the shape and size of the restaurant. However, the décor has morphed from country-chic Italian to unquestionably Mexican with bright colors, a bold wallpaper print and south-of-the-border embellishments. One of note is the Mexican rug on its way from a maker in Mexico whose family is from Madison.
When construction of the adjacent building is complete come August, my bet is this area will see higher foot traffic on what was otherwise one of the more sleepy corners of the Square. Expect a quick pace here, where plates of tacos, enchiladas and street corn will come sailing out of the kitchen to the modest 12-table dining space.
Tequila now dominates the bar and shows up in margaritas, both frozen and on the rocks, and flights to fit nearly everyone’s fancy as well as creative cocktails. Even the beer has flare. Ask for a Chelada-style Tecate, a Mexican lager served in a can that’s spiced up with salt, Tajin spice mix and a lime wedge on the rim.
On to the food! Ceviche: Surprise! There’s perfectly purple coin-sized slices of octopus among gulf shrimp and bay scallops mingling with cucumber, tomatillo, onion and serrano chile. There’s some citrus, sesame seeds for added crunch and enough crushed avocado to put those corn tortilla chips to work.
Calabacitas, which are garlic-braised zucchinis with an avocado and tomatillo puree, are decked out with queso fresco, watercress, toasted seeds and red onion served on soft tortillas. Nachos: Off the snack menu, this is not your typical big ’ol mess of meat, cheese and beans. It’s the chorizo that just might kick other nachos to the curb for you. Accompanied by sharp cheddar cheese sauce, black beans, pickled vegetable, guacamole, Chihuahua cheese, scallions and cilantro, it’s among the freshest tasting nacho dishes up here in the north, in my humble opinion
Carnitas: Like a true diva, this dish made her entrance late in the evening, sending guests home with the lingering taste of sultry shredded pork, a feisty mango-habanero sauce, queso fresco, onion and cilantro P.S. What the heck is a durito? Well, it’s a snack. Some bars have peanuts; Canteen has puffed wheat wagon wheels with chile, Tajin spice and enough lime that might make you go “Holy tang!—it’s too much.” But then you’ll take another bite, and another, all while making that awkward squinty face each time and your dining companions will laugh, until they try one. Then you’ll likely agree: “We need another bag.” They’re that addicting. Best part: The first order of duritos is on Canteen, each one after is $1—a ploy to enable the addiction is my guess. With lunch and dinner served seven days a week along with brunch and late night food on the weekends, there’s plenty of opportunity to find your squinty face and make some new (Mexican) memories at this little taqueria making some noise on the corner.