Cantina 52 offers a twist on Mexican favorites – Shaw Local

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A fusion of unexpected spices and ingredients surprised the taste buds on a recent chilly Saturday afternoon at Cantina 52, a colorful and cool taco and tequila bar in downtown Crystal Lake.

Cantina 52, at 52 N. Brink St., is tucked away in a small, airy, casual, and bustling space decorated with cacti, skulls, and other chachkas common to Mexican culture. There’s even a hidden Pac-Man machine in the back.

The restaurant is stocked with a large, well-stocked bar along the side of the dining room, offering a wide variety of tequila. The bartender claimed to have the largest selection of tequila in McHenry County. Rodeo was on the TVs above the bar, and the music played was a mix of genres, including songs from the Rolling Stones, Janis Joplin and Pitbull.

Cantina 52 is open for dining until late at night, when there is live entertainment including karaoke, acoustic bands, a DJ, and dancing. During the warmer months, the oversized floor-to-ceiling windows will be open, with outdoor seating available.

The menu offers traditional Mexican dishes revisited. A unique variety of 10 recipes to create tacos, nachos, street pizzas and quesadillas includes Gringo (your traditional beef taco), Mediterranean Lamb, Herbivore, Baja Pineapple Fish Taco , Texan, Louisiana Cajun crawfish, BBQ pork belly, spicy shrimp, spicy Korean BBQ jackfruit and taco tikka.

We ordered all but two, the Baja Pineapple Fish and the Pork Belly.

A hit among the eight tacos ordered was the Texan, made with thinly sliced ​​beef brisket and topped with crunchy onions and a nice sweet Cattlemen’s BBQ sauce.

Cantina 52's Texan tacos were made with thinly sliced ​​beef brisket and topped with crunchy onions and a nice sweet Cattlemen's BBQ sauce.

Another great afternoon favorite was the Mediterranean lamb taco. It tasted like a gyroscope. The lamb was flavorful and delicious. The feta and yogurt sauce felt like, “I was eating the best gyro I’ve ever had,” my lunch date said.

The spicy Korean BBQ jackfruit topped with carrot coleslaw (which could be a meal in itself) was a special favorite.

We ordered a selection of tacos, including top left to right, The Gringo, made with seasoned ground beef, onion, tomato, lettuce and shredded cheese;  the Tikka Taco, made with chicken tikka masala, fresh cucumber, jalapeno coriander;  bottom left to right, BBQ pulled pork, made with seasoned pork, marinated vegetables, jalapeno, sriracha aioli;  and spicy prawns with pico de gallo.

If you like Indian food, order the tikka taco.

The dishes, served à la carte, range from $5 to $14. Appetizers, such as jalapeño poppers, Spanish rice, and street corn soup, range from $5 to $8.

Not only do main dishes offer fun variations, Cantina 52 creates eight unusual varieties of guacamole. Surprises added to the familiar recipe are sun-dried tomato bacon (when is bacon a bad addition to any dish?), kale and artichoke, mango, pineapple, street corn, spicy cheddar, jalapeños and peaches.

On our lazy Saturday afternoon visit, we opted for the Mango Madness guacamole. It was good, a good mix of creamy avocado and chunky mango chunks, with mango sauce on top. It was different, yes, but tasty with their light and crispy fries.

Cantina 52 offers a number of versions of the guacamole, including Mango Madness, which we ordered.

The margaritas were, well, has anyone ever complained about a bad margarita? I opted for the traditional flavor and my lunch date had a mango jalapeño margarita with a slice of jalapeño. Very satisfaying.

The dessert was amazing. Churro Cream Sugar Skull Cake.

The Churro Sugar Cream Skull Cake at Cantina 52 in Crystal Lake was amazing.

The cake was slightly crispy and shaped by a small stylized skull mold. It arrived with cinnamon and icing drizzled on top, with a side of vanilla ice cream.

Other fun desserts include Berry Margarita Sugar Skull Cake, Mango Mousse Cake, and Cinnamon Sugar Tortilla Chips served with vanilla ice cream. All but the tortilla chips, which were $5, were $7.

Looking forward to coming back in the warmer months and sipping a cold margarita in the outdoor seating area.

• The Mystery Diner is an employee of the Northwest Herald. The identity of the diner is not revealed to the restaurant staff before or during the meal. The Mystery Diner visits a restaurant and then reports on the experience. If the Mystery Diner cannot recommend the establishment, we will not post a story.

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IF YOU ARE GOING TO

WHAT: Canteen 52

OR: 52 N. Brink St., Crystal Lake

CALL: 779-220-4987

INFORMATION: cantina52.com

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