Sunday, May 1, 2011

Chago’s Cantina

Nashville Restaurants and Food
Chago’s Cantina
2015 Belmont Blvd.

The Belmont restaurant row is packed with establishments, shoulder to shoulder, in the short stretch on Belmont Blvd. On a sunny weekend it’s a fine venue for strollers, joggers and dining al fresco. Chago’s Cantina is a good fit for the neighborhood. And while the menu may seem full of Mexican standards at first glance, if you take a closer look there are some rewarding differences.

Shade is a priority and summer diners will appreciate the awnings over the two patio spaces. Inside, the dining room is festive enough. Tunes on the stereo range from alternative rock on one visit to vintage Latin pop music on another. This is already a popular spot for happy hour and the bar is well stocked to accommodate. Small batch bourbons and fine tequilas await.

Our first visit took in the menu standards. The dip sampler proffers an average white queso, fresh guacamole with a nice onion crunch, uninspired pico de gallo, and what they call Mexican hummus (sure, why not). The free, smoky salsa, with what tastes to be roasted peppers, outshines them all. The carne asada burrito has juicy, seasoned beef, guacamole and onion. The toasted tortilla is a nice touch. Black beans elevate the usual frijoles and the rice is studded with corn and peas. On this visit everything seems a bit skimpy in portion size for price.

On the second visit we’re determined to explore the more interesting parts of the menu and we’re glad we did. While the first visit left us less than excited, the second trip was an entirely different meal. We start with the mofongo, made of mashed sweet plantains, which yield a sweeter and tastier version of the Caribbean classic. Curtido slaw is quite vinegary with inventive herb touches. The fajita de pina is a real spectacle on the table: it’s a pineapple split in half and stuffed full of meat, peppers and onions. The pulled pork is excellent: rich, smoky and with enough bark to give it some texture. It’s one of the better fajita grill-ups I have had in Nashville, with everything is given taste bud vibrancy thanks to chunks of pineapple. The sweet and succulent combo works perfectly.

Veggie Eater: The Chago’s menu is solicitous enough to have a Vegetarian section and details of vegan options. The menu also uses a plant like “V” symbols to delineate veggie options scattered throughout the general menu, as well. This being said, our first visit was not fantastic. We were in fact greeted at the door, by a person who questioned why we were there and was not sure that they were in fact open. We went back outside, looked at the hours posted, and pointed the employee in the same direction. The dip sampler wasn’t very interesting or original. I ordered the Chile Relleno, I thought from the veggie menu, but apparently in fact from the a la carte section. The relleno itself was tasty; it was roasted, not fried, stuffed with black beans and rice, and topped with queso and a poblano cream sauce. It was good, but seemed a bit stingy at $8. Again, there was some confusion as the a la carte price was in fact $5 (still seems a little stingy). To mitigate our feelings on our first trip, there was fantastic music: Flaming Lips, Radiohead, Dandy Warhols. The first visit left me feeling as if I would not come back, were it not to give it a fair shake on the blog.

What I really wanted on my second visit was a combo platter, so I could experience several different items. For whatever reason, this is not possible with the veggie items. The waitress said that I could make my own version of a combo platter, with the veggie enchiladas plate and a Taco Dos al a carte. It was too much food for one meal, but ample enough for two. The enchiladas were stuffed with spinach and beans, then topped with cheese and rojo sauce. The menu indicates that there is a choice of rojo or verde sauce, though I don’t remember being given a choice (would have opted verde). I had a hard time discerning any beans through all of the spinach. The Taco Dos is a thing of beauty: whole fried chick peas, roasted mushrooms, and freshly sautéed spinach topped in a poblano cream. The chick peas have just a bit of firmness from frying, which pairs well with the spinach. The mushrooms lend a wonderful earthiness. After the second visit, I left wondering what I would order on my next visit. I really appreciate a veggie menu which is not limited to rice and bean combinations.

Meat Eater: Those veggie options are really appreciated. It makes dining for us mixed-marriage types much easier. There are plenty of other interesting menu items to bring us back for future visits. We hope they continue to be creative and open up the menu to more pan-Hispanic influences. We paid $39 with tax and tip one on visit and $38 on another.

Chago's Cantina on Urbanspoon