Restaurant review: Go south of the border with Nueva Cantina

St. Pete's Nueva Cantina shines with authentic Mexican cuisine in the old El Gallo Grande space.

click to enlarge Nueva Cantina's "smorchos," a generous helping of a Mexican take on s'mores. - Nicole Abbett
Nicole Abbett
Nueva Cantina's "smorchos," a generous helping of a Mexican take on s'mores.

Nueva Cantina

3.5 out of 5 stars

1625 Fourth St. S., St. Petersburg. Appetizers: $4-$11; entrees: $7-$18; desserts: $3-$9; margarita pitcher: $20. 727-851-9579; nuevacantina.com.


I must confess that I'm a touch apprehensive when I decide to take some friends from out of town to eat at a new Mexican restaurant. They're from San Diego, you see. For the geographically impaired, that's on the border with the real Mexico — you know, the one where teenagers from California sneak across the border to Tijuana for all kinds of mischief, and teenagers from Mexico risk their lives trying to do underpaid, backbreaking work that no one in U.S. wants to do.

Needless to say, there's great Mexican cuisine where they come from. I relax a bit when we arrive and realize Nueva Cantina resides in the former El Gallo Grande space south of downtown St. Pete. The dark-eyed beauty, Maria Felix, still seduces approaching customers from the oversized mural on the back wall.

You still enter through the ornate doorway into a magical world of wonderful ceramic tiles, decorative cut-out bricks, huge mural portraits, lucha libre wrestlers, and an inviting bar with a series of communal high-tops under a colorful raised square tray ceiling. Wisely, the new owners didn't change the building's striking ambiance. Now, the question is, "What about the food?"

click to enlarge St. Pete's new "That Mexican Place" has kept many of the decor elements of El Gallo Grande. - Nicole Abbett
Nicole Abbett
St. Pete's new "That Mexican Place" has kept many of the decor elements of El Gallo Grande.

click to enlarge St. Pete's new "That Mexican Place" has kept many of the decor elements of El Gallo Grande. - Nicole Abbett
Nicole Abbett
St. Pete's new "That Mexican Place" has kept many of the decor elements of El Gallo Grande.

We decide to order a pitcher of margaritas to grease the tracks and charge ahead. First stop, the Nueva sampler. This gives us all a chance to check out salsa, queso and guacamole in one fell swoop. Thin and crisp, the chips don't scream corn in a way that you might wish if you were to eat them alone. However, the three dips more than hold their own. The chunky salsa is fresh with a nice balance of tomato and onion and a hint of cilantro. Creamy queso gets a nice pop from jalapeño, and the guacamole with bits of tomato keeps the garlic, lime and cilantro in check. It's not assertive, but delivers a nice contrast as part of the trio. All in all, a good start. And, goodness gracious, our first pitcher of margaritas seems to have run dry already.

We manage to still have our sea legs, so another pitcher is in order. Once we've eaten our entrees we can survive a second pitcher without a designated driver. The drinks are tasty — the salt rims and lime predominate. It's refreshing without too much tequila to cause trouble.

Carne asada and chicken fajitas are standard issue. The meat is done just right, but skirt steak is about flavor, not texture, and one companion is a tad underwhelmed. While these two please rather than "wow," the expected elements are there. The veggies with the carne asada, though, are particularly good. It's not often that broccoli and asparagus are perfect when they team up; they actually outshine the beef.

click to enlarge Sizzling chili-lime chicken fajitas arrive on a bed of peppers and onions. - Nicole Abbett
Nicole Abbett
Sizzling chili-lime chicken fajitas arrive on a bed of peppers and onions.

Both the carnitas poblano and the seafood enchiladas are served in oval casserole dishes, allowing for copious amounts of sauce. This is a welcome choice, however, because they're really yummy. The carnitas is full of juicy pork shreds, and its poblano peppers provide enough heat, with the acidity of tomato, to offer a welcome contrast to the cheese. The surprise is apple, walnuts and raisins for some sweetness and crunch. One San Diego native is all smiles and has to work to keep the sauce from dripping down the chin. This one is a big hit. I secretly wipe my brow; Florida's Gulf Coast has passed muster.

The star of our evening is a dish of seafood enchiladas. Roasted corn sherry cream sauce mixed with juices produced by the bounty of local seafood is terrific. Little bay scallops, shrimp and langostinos are enveloped inside the tortillas, which are just buried under the decadent sauce with melted Gouda. It's a very pleasant switch from beef or fish tacos.

For dessert, we can't resist the "smorchos," a Mexican twist on s'mores. The huge helping that could easily serve four (if you're not little piggies) is filled with crunchy fried tortillas sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar, drizzled with chocolate syrup, and dotted with soft marshmallows. Plus, cinnamon ice cream with lovely texture, yet not much spicy punch. It's super-sweet and seems to satisfy my happy guests. I'm personally on the fence, as I'm not a huge fan of regular s'mores; the thought of substituting crispy tacos (that have a distinct note of the oil in which they're fried) for graham crackers doesn't particularly float my boat. But while I'm doing food critic calculations in my brain, my table keeps picking away.

click to enlarge Among the fresh additions to the enchanting space is an outdoor deck. - Nicole Abbett
Nicole Abbett
Among the fresh additions to the enchanting space is an outdoor deck.

I'm a bigger fan of the guava and cream cheese flan, a dense concoction that tastes more of tropical fruit than the vanilla and caramel you usually encounter. The dessert also has little of the expected thin caramel that floods the plate when traditional flan is unmolded. My companions aren't convinced, but I think it's a nice twist.

So ends our journey. My guests are delighted and conclude Nueva Cantina is very good, indeed. Although they're headed back to the Mexican border, they go with the knowledge that though Mexico is a Gulf (or Cozumel cruise) away, Tampa Bay has another restaurant to tick off for authentic south-of-the-border flavor.

Jon Palmer Claridge dines anonymously when reviewing. Check out the explanation of his rating system.

click to enlarge The veggies that accompany the carne asada are particularly good. - Nicole Abbett
Nicole Abbett
The veggies that accompany the carne asada are particularly good.

click to enlarge The Nueva Sampler of salsa, queso and guacamole, served with crisp chips. - Nicole Abbett
Nicole Abbett
The Nueva Sampler of salsa, queso and guacamole, served with crisp chips.


click to enlarge An exterior view of the Mexican restaurant off Fourth Street South. - Nicole Abbett
Nicole Abbett
An exterior view of the Mexican restaurant off Fourth Street South.

click to enlarge Out front, a parking sign speaks to the playful atmosphere inside. - Nicole Abbett
Nicole Abbett
Out front, a parking sign speaks to the playful atmosphere inside.

click to enlarge A number of decorative details add to the restaurant's striking ambiance. - Nicole Abbett
Nicole Abbett
A number of decorative details add to the restaurant's striking ambiance.


click to enlarge A number of decorative details add to the restaurant's striking ambiance. - Nicole Abbett
Nicole Abbett
A number of decorative details add to the restaurant's striking ambiance.


About The Author

Jon Palmer Claridge

Jon Palmer Claridge—Tampa Bay's longest running, and perhaps last anonymous, food critic—has spent his life following two enduring passions, theatre and fine dining. He trained as a theatre professional (BFA/Acting; MFA/Directing) while Mastering the Art of French Cooking from Julia Child as an avocation. He acted...
Scroll to read more Restaurant Reviews articles
Join the Creative Loafing Tampa Bay Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state.
Help us keep this coverage going with a one-time donation or an ongoing membership pledge.

Newsletters

Join Creative Loafing Tampa Bay Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.

We welcome readers to submit letters regarding articles and content in Creative Loafing Tampa Bay. Letters should be a minimum of 150 words, refer to content that has appeared on Creative Loafing Tampa Bay, and must include the writer's full name, address, and phone number for verification purposes. No attachments will be considered. Writers of letters selected for publication will be notified via email. Letters may be edited and shortened for space.

Email us at [email protected]