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Santa Cantina Lays Mexican Food Clichés to Rest (in a doorway, under a sombrero)

By Andrew Cottrill . October 26, 2016

¡Dios mío! With restaurants like Santa Cantina, Mexican food in Berlin is entering Phase Three of its evolution. Bye-bye burrito! Your carb-on-carb, I-suddenly-need-to-fall-asleep kiss will be missed.

The complacency of international Mexican food, and its reliance on the ‘stick something in a tortilla and call it Mexican’ model has long been a fly in my pico de gallo. But I’m happy to say that the Berlin appetite for authentic Mexican cuisine is growing faster than the queue at Veganz after a new delivery of avocados.

A “Mexican-inspired” menu that changes weekly

Santa Cantina joins its sister restaurants Santa Maria and Santa Maria Eastside, but what makes this new addition different? “Santa Cantina is not your typical Mexican”, I’m assured. Each week it offers a new menu of “Mexican-inspired” dishes. This autumn, chef Connor Quinn is cooking up seasonal European ingredients but with “Mexican freshness and spice”.

Fried chicken taco

And how did this concept come about? Owner Julian Boyce told me “whenever the chef at Santa Maria wanted to express himself more with new dishes, the customers ordered more burritos. So we opened this place.” And of Santa Cantina’s eclectic menu, Connor Quinn told me “Mexican food is naturally fusion. It’s open to interpretation.”

So what of the food? I went to Santa Cantina to test out their taster menu.

The taster menu – starting with intriguing variations on vegetarian Mexican cuisine

One of the first treats I received really did test my understanding of what ‘Mexican food’ can be. Brussels sprouts, coated in cornflour and fried, served with lime aioli. “It’s a Mexican classic” winked proprietor Ben Mason as he placed it in front of me.

A big, sharing portion, the sprouts were crisp and salty on the outside, soft and satisfying on the inside, and the smooth, light dip brought the flavours to life. An interesting treatment of the old Brussels sprout – perhaps the most maligned of vegetables. It was delicious and fun to eat, like a bar snack.

Next to arrive seemed like another homely English classic – cauliflower cheese – but with a Mexican twist: roasted cauliflower sopes. A sope something like small and thick corn tortilla, but extra soft and glutenous inside with a texture akin to mashed potato. On top of that, the chef layered roasted cauliflower with a chili and tomato molten cheese and Mexican beer sauce. Unctuous. You could take a Sunday afternoon bath in it.

Then came something more recognisably Mexican. Barbecued aubergine tacos. Served on a black bean hummus with roasted tomato and generously slathered in herb oil. Sweet and savory with a smoky sauce. A vegan dish which didn’t leave you longing for anything else.

You might’ve noticed so far that this has all been vegetarian. No, Santa Cantina isn’t a vegetarian restaurant but the menu boasts many vegetarian/vegan dishes. Their chef emphasises vegetables and knows how to bring out their best. Take their beetroot aguachile, where the beetroot is charred and smoked using wood chips, then peeled, and the peelings are dried, mixed with spices and ground into a powder that’s then served with the dish alongside a lime juice vinaigrette. The dish takes three days in total to prepare.

The meat of it – pork belly confit, beef tongue… heaven

But let’s get onto the meat, shall we? Staying in the Mexican tradition, Santa Cantina cook most of the components of their meat dishes using pork lard instead of oil or butter (I love that!). They also experiment with using offal and lesser-used cuts of meat which are delicacies in Mexico. Like the beef tongue tacos, slow cooked and then pan fried, served with a savory chimichurri and charred-crisp scallions. “It’s a tough sell”, the chef told me, offering a cut like tongue. My Mexican friend told me “it’s what kids in Mexico hate but the adults love”, and I couldn’t agree more. The tongue meat is lean, delicate and complex, and more akin to filet steak than a cheaper cut.

The outstanding dish for me was the pork belly confit – slow cooked in the fat from Santa Maria Eastside’s famous conchinita pibl, yet with crispy crackling, served on a white bean cassoulet and with blackened cauliflower and a tamarind mole. It was delicious. The spice rub had permeated every bite of the perfectly cooked pork. It was rich, and the tamarind cut through it. The crispy crackling was countered by the soft and savory cassoulet. I was in heaven.

Mezcal or Mexican craft beer? ¿Porque no los dos?

To accompany the pork’s richness, we were brought a Mezcal Sour cocktail, a classic Pisco Sour but using mezcal.

Santa Cantina has high aims for stocking its bar with Mexican drinks. Still in the process of building up their collection, they aim to soon offer 10 mezcals and 10 tequilas each.

We drank two craft beers on the night – both Ocho Reales beers imported from Monterey. It was strange to try a Mexican ale… after drinking things like Corona, it’s strange to think of Mexicans drinking ale. Anyways, the beers still retained that Mexican “summer beer” taste, albeit with extra malty notes. Picture it: an ale you can drink in the sun.

And Santa Cantina aren’t stopping with the Ocho Reales – they are currently securing deals with distributors to get a whole raft of Mexican craft beers shipped over to Germany. They’ll probably be the only place in Europe you can taste them.

After all that, dessert was just showing off

I’ll end on dessert. I was amazed when this chocolate mousse was put in front of us. 1) Because it was pretty but also 2) It meant that phew! Our nine-course food journey was ending and I could rest, perfectly satisfied.

A chocolate and cinnamon “pot au creme” mousse, served with crumbled almond shortbread and a Grand Marnier and Amaretto shot. A creamy, bitter-sweet delight (with most of the sweetness coming from the accompanying shot). And that Grand Marnier gave the mousse that chocolate/orange twist that hey, everyone likes.

I personally love what Santa Cantina have done with their “Mexican-inspired” menu. There is real flair and authenticity, like how they ferment their jalapeños and habaneros before using them, yet the move away from ‘classics’ lets chef Connor Quinn show you how he cooks, and his interpretations of Mexican cuisine.

If you’d like to taste their taster menu, you get five courses for €20 every Wednesday and Thursday at least for the next few weeks. Plus, they celebrate Margarita Happy Hour every day between 7-9pm where you can get a margarita for €4.

Santa Cantina
Simon Dach Strasse 22
Friedrichshain
10245 Berlin

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