4 out of 5 stars
6707 N. Florida Ave., Tampa. Appetizers: $6-$13; entrees: $11-$28; desserts: $6-$8; cocktails: $8-$12. 813-232-8226, mekenitacantina.com.
It seems like I’ve been visiting a ton of Mexican restaurants in recent months, so my expectations are low when I arrive at the new Florida Avenue digs for Mekenita Cantina and its fresh Pacific Mexican cuisine. As my tasters and I work through our meal in Tampa’s Seminole Heights, though, from craft cocktails to dessert, we are continually surprised and delighted. Chef Rand and Tiffani Packer are making a statement as they relocate from Lutz and Mekenita morphs from a Mexican grill into a very special cantina.
Our opening salvo of drinks starts off with distinction. Red sangria infused with Monkey Spiced Rum, exotic fruits, citrus and spices is on the sweet side, but delightfully fruity. The Packers have a Colorado connection, so it’s no surprise that the Evergreen Pine Needle cocktail is garnished with a sprig of pine. It adds a surprising freshness to Pendleton rye whisky with Sichuan peppercorns, grapefruit and citrus bitters. My tablemate is upended by the power of this one at first, but likes it more as the ice melts a bit.
Meanwhile, Oaxaca Bath Bomb is an unusual mix of Corralejo Reposado Tequila infused with rosemary syrup, the brightness of muddled lemon, and sprightly bubbly in a rosemary sugared rim. It’s a refreshing combo that you don’t see coming.
Both the salsa and the guacamole are smooth rather than chunky and pack lots of flavor. I usually prefer the chunky variety and like my guac with tomato, yet the balance of flavors in each of these is terrific. Avocado is the star of the guac, but the acidity of the lime and judicious hints of an onion’s bite meld with a touch of pungent cilantro. So far, so great.
Puerto Escondido Seafood Ceviche is a martini glass with a big mound of delicate, tiny tiger shrimp, chunks of unidentified Pacific whitefish, and cubes of avocado all bathed in a spicy lime tomato jus that fills up your senses. Ceviche too often is one-dimensional; Mekenita’s version announces its presence with bold flavors. Our table is abuzz.
Slices instead of cubed ancho-seared ahi tuna join thin, almost-translucent cucumbers in crisp taco shells made from wontons. There’s some more Asian fusion going on with squiggles of wasabi sweet ginger aioli to provide the perfect accent. The dish’s heirloom carrot salad is transformed by the smart addition of flavorful edamame.
The chili garlic-rubbed smoked pork burrito looks like your average wrap ran into a wasp’s nest, had an anaphylactic allergic reaction and puffed up to twice its normal size. It’s easily big enough to feed two or perhaps a family with small children — that is, of course, if the young tykes have a taste for spice and finesse. Ours is served wet, with a complex Oaxacan mole negra sauce that coaxes the best from the tempestuous marriage of chocolate and toasted chili peppers. So leave your EpiPen at home.
Citrus grilled chicken enchiladas are also a cut above. The shredded chicken is moist, and the roasted agua de chile mole verde is simply delish. It’s finished with zig-zagged crema, which would make Zorro proud, and accompanied by fine Mexican rice and black beans.
Under the Grande Platos section, grilled, tender braised honey chipotle short ribs have lots going on. The meat isn’t so soft as to flake apart, but adding char from the grill is an inspired touch. Topped with glistening frisée dotted with thinly shaved radish and jalapeño, the plate pops with colorful heirloom carrots, sautéed snow peas, white hominy looking like a corn niblet doped up on steroids, and tomato guajillo lime salsa for a controlled burn.
I don’t typically get excited about Mexican desserts. Churros have their place, but I admit a fondness for the excesses of fine French pastry. That said, the unexpected sweet treats that finish our meal are particularly enjoyable.
When I reach for my first forkful of the frozen lemon bar placed before me, my memory harkens back to a recent icy debacle that was nearly inedible. However, when I manage to snap off a piece and bring it to my lips, I fall instantly in love at first bite. The Carlota de Limon is phenomenal, with lemon flavor exploding on your tongue and melting away in creamy delight. The accompanying blueberry compote has a lover’s soft caress of ginger on the palate, the citrus whipped cream bursts with flavor, and a thin half-slice of candied lime glistening with granulated sugar makes for a memorable garnish. I mention this to a foodie friend, who immediately goes for lunch and texts me a photo with appropriately gushing remarks.
Not far behind are the pitch-perfect flavors of homemade flan, which makes me wish for a tad more of intoxicating burnt caramel sauce. It complements the lusciously creamy vanilla custard so well that I find myself salivating like a Pavlovian dog. Luckily, napkins are at the ready. Add a little honey drizzle, a sprinkling of toasted almond slices and a bright mint garnish and you’ve got a superior example of this classic.
Looking at its cuisine through an Oaxacan lens and with a Pacific bent, Mekenita Cantina emerges at the top echelon of Mexican dining anywhere across Tampa Bay.