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Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2010

Mexican Done Right at BelAir Cantina

Mexican Done Right at BelAir Cantina

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Life is returning to normal in the area of the Humboldt Avenue Bridge. Two restaurants, the Good Life and Bayou, went out of business during the lengthy reconstruction project, but now both have been replaced. Stubby’s Pub & Grub opened in the location of Bayou in August, and more recently BelAir Cantina took the place of the Good Life.

BelAir Cantina owners Leslie Montemurro and Scott Johnson are no strangers to the restaurant business—among their other local establishments are Balzac, Hi Hat, Fuel Café, Comet Café, Palomino and Honeypie. But this is their first venture into the Mexican genre.

With its curved roof and large banks of windows, the building is dazzling. Some of the windows are glass garage doors that can be opened on warm days. The décor is minimal; tequila bottles line the bar area and a surfboard provides a Cal-Mex touch that is also reflected in the food.

Tacos and tostadas form the heart of the menu. The tortillas (the smaller size that you will find at any decent taqueria) are doubled up. The various fillings can also be ordered in burritos or bowls ($6.89-$9.29).

Tacos of tilapia ($3.19) or tofu ($2.39) are prepared multiple ways. The tilapia is at its best in the Baja tacos, where small pieces of fish in a light batter are fried and served with a jalapeno slaw. This is the type of fish taco that is common in Los Angeles. The tofu can be prepared this way as well, but a superior option is to order it Yucatan-style. This version adds a salsa of minced fresh pineapple with tomatillo and avocado. A much spicier option is alajilo, which is a puree of arbol chiles.

The carnitas tacos ($2.89), pieces of grilled pork with pico de gallo, are a real crowd-pleaser. The pork has a great charred flavor. The carne asada tacos ($3.39) also please, with marinated beefsteak served with chopped cilantro and onion—it’s the soul of Mexican street food.

A recent addition to the menu is Korean beef tacos ($3.39). This is a trend that began in California and spread rapidly. The Korean touch comes from the beef being marinated in a sweetened soy sauce. Carrot, jicama and a swirl of sriracha crema add up to an unusual combination of flavors halfway between Mexico and Korea.

Zihuatanejo shrimp tacos ($3.89) are also worth a try. A bit of jalapeño spices up the tomato and onion in this tasty dish. The pollo verde ($2.57) are bland by comparison. There is plenty of pulled chicken meat to go with the chopped onion and cilantro, but the salsa verde needs to be bolder.

Fortunately, there is an additional salsa supply. Complimentary tortilla chips arrive with a pair of options: salsa roja, a tomato-based version spiked with jalapeño and poblano peppers, and tomatillo salsa, a verdant green salsa that is more tart than spicy. For a small extra charge, there is also a habanero salsa, with the ultra-fiery peppers tamed by tomatillos. The guacamole ($5.27) is nice and creamy but still contains chunks of avocado. It offers a surprising burst of hot pepper flavor.

Also consider shrimp ceviche ($5.89). The plentiful cooked shrimp are marinated in smoked chile vinaigrette. Instead of the usual chopped onion and cilantro, you will find slices of avocado.

The house salad ($5.39) includes decent tequila lime vinaigrette tossed in a variety of leaf lettuces with onion, diced tomato and avocado.

When three or more tacos or tostadas are ordered, Mexican rice and a choice of beans are included. The rice is not the most flavorful, but the topping of a sweet plantain slice with a dab of crema is a nice touch. The bean choices are Oaxacan black beans or drunken pinto beans. The Oaxacan are said to be vegan, though they are topped with crumbled cheese. The flavorful pinto beans come with bits of bacon.

Another reason to visit BelAir is for the tequila. The list is one of the largest in the state, with more than 80 varieties. They cost between $5 and $25 by the shot. The cheapest margarita is a frozen one ($5), but it is worth the extra investment for a house margarita ($6.50) that is made with fresh squeezed lime juice and Cointreau. Any of the tequilas can be served as a margarita for a surcharge of $1.50 over the shot price.

The cantina can be very busy in the evenings, especially on weekends. I prefer a quieter lunchtime visit. This is the time to truly enjoy the sunlight coming through the large windows. The BelAir Cantina will make even a winter day feel like summer.

BelAir Cantina

1935 N. Water St.

(414) 226-2245

$

Credit Cards: All Major

Handicap Accessible

belaircantina.com

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