Billing itself as "That Mexican Place", Nueva Cantina opened its South Tampa location in June where the former Love's Artifacts Bar and Grill once stood. The form factor inside didn't change much but the space is much more functional. It's decked out with colorful Aztec and Mexican inspired decor and paintings. An exterior patio bar that includes a small stage is under the oaks in the rear for cooler weather.
The cocktail menu includes over 70 brands of Tequilas and seven brands of Mezcal along with a host of tequila inspired cocktails. The moderately priced lunch and dinner menu covers two full pages and is packed with typical Mexican dishes but with a more modern flare.
I start with the Nueva Sampler, a platter of tortilla chips and a trio of sauces- guacamole, queso and salsa. The Queso Blanco is remarkably bland. Many Mexican restaurants choose to add some kick or seasoning to bring the flavor forward. Not here. The menu calls it "our famous queso". ?
But then things look up. The salsa is really packing some extra kick, good tomato flavor, and a great consistency. Without a doubt, however, the guac is the star here. The flavorful mix of avocado chunks with a little heat, onions, salt, and lemon juice is simple but very effective. ¡Qué bueno! The tortilla chips are seasoned with a limey tang and are salty. According to my server they are purchased commercially and then fried and seasoned in house. The dish is a nice start.
For my main course I order Chicken Fajitas. They are finished and served in a traditional hot iron skillet, sizzling and smoking as they arrive at the table. The seasoned chicken is tender and slightly blackened and sits on a bed of green peppers and onions. After they are placed on the table the air filled with that wonderful grilled onions aroma.
The accompanying toppings include pico de gallo, lettuce, rice, shredded cheese, sour cream, and refried beans. I ordered the dish with corn tortillas, but they are very dry and crumbly. The server brought me flour tortillas which were much better and strongly recommended.
The manager was terse as I took pictures, intrusively seating himself beside me at the next table and gruffly asking me what I was doing. Explaining I had a food blog seemed to calm him some and only then did he tell me was the manager. But his attitude remained curt. It's hard to say whether it is due to inexperience or he's just like that. In this day and age where a lot of people takes pictures of their food, it didn't make sense. Being curious is natural. Being a pushy doofus not so much. He def unapologetically rubbed me the wrong way and then walked away. I still have no clue what that was all about.
Dining outdoors on the back patio will probably be intriguing as the weather cools down. There is also a front patio but it is six feet from busy MacDill Avenue and possibly noisy.
Service was friendly and snappy. Pop music, mostly from the seventies and eighties, plays in the background. The third Wednesday of each month Nuevo Cantina offers a tequila pairing dinner.
If you're in the mood for some pretty good Mexican food, give this place to try. Just don't try to take any pictures!
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