Matt Lake, the award-winning chef behind the successful Mexican restaurant Alamexo in downtown Salt Lake City, has long wanted to open a more casual, family-friendly complement to that fine-dining establishment.
He recently debuted a sister spot, called Alamexo Cantina, in the 9th and 9th district, adding regional Mexican flavor to a lineup of American, Thai, Italian and Middle Eastern fare found on 900 South.
He nailed the lively, vibrant vibe, with the space’s Mexican-tiled bar and colorful walls — painted mustard, red and deep purple, with the fourth made up of dozens of nooks filled with lighted candles.
The ambience is great for a drink from an extensive menu of margarita options and accompanied by endless house-made chips and excellent guacamole.
Many of the main dishes intrigue with bright and surprising flavors. And if you arrive knowing that everything is made from scratch with local fine-dining ingredients — organic produce, hormone-free meat, sustainably sourced seafood — you may more readily accept the tab.
But those details are absent from the menu and my servers’ sales jobs. For a spot that is billed as a casual neighborhood joint, the prices seem too upscale for the entrées’ smallish portions and à la carte sides. A party of four can easily spend $90 before adding alcohol. The cost rivals the downtown spot, but there, the rice and beans are included.
Upon entering you are greeted by a black and white mural copied from the label on a bottle of Espolòn Blanco tequila, depicting a rooster-riding skeleton charging after fleeing and flying skulls and bones.
Tequilas are clearly the star of the bar. The alcohol menu lists about 20 premium options arranged by type: blancos, reposados (rested in oak barrels) and añejos (aged), plus mezcals. They range in price from $9 to $18. It’s another dollar to add Cointreau, agave nectar, a citrus mixture of lime and grapefruit, and house-made syrup infused with damiana herb to make it a margarita.
The menu implies sharing, and it’s the same for lunch and dinner.
For starters, the guacamole ($11.95) is a must. It comes in just two versions, one traditional, the other topped with pork, both made tableside. Beware the typical danger in filling up on it while you wait for the meal. If you do want to make a night of small bites, two or three botanas, or appetizers, are large enough to satisfy two people, as long as guac is involved.
The spicy flautas con papas y chorizo ($7.25) appetizer was tasty and filling, with two large, perfectly crispy tortillas filled with house-made chorizo and potatoes and topped with flourishes of red guajillo chile salsa, white crema and slices of green jalapeños. But I tasted more of the masa than the promised shredded chicken in the molotes ($7.25 for three corn-based pastries).
I also suggest sharing the seemingly permanent “seasonal specialties.” I would have preferred smaller portions that would leave me wanting more, for a lower price ($16.95 each). The pork and duck meatballs were served in a tasty, citrusy mole — made of tomatillos, pumpkin seeds, chiles and a surprise hint of all spice—but three large meatballs are overwhelming as a meal. The three sweet plantain cakes, balanced by a spicy tomato-based sauce, drizzled in crema and topped with queso fresco ($16.95), were better, but again too much for one.
The enchiladas and tacos ($15.95/plate) are served “family style,” which in my mind suggests enough to feed a family. In reality, they are a single dinner serving, but certainly shareable.
Enchiladas come three per plate and tacos arrive fajita style so you can fill your own warm white corn local tortillas with the meat of your choice, along with aioli. Both types are served on small cast-iron skillets on top of wood chargers. Lake tells me they are narrow in design to be easily passed around.
The Oaxaca cheese and wild mushroom enchiladas, with a base of cremini aside an ever-changing cast of available funghi, served with ranchera salsa, was by far a table favorite, besting the pork carnita enchiladas in a bland salsa verde. The chicken enchiladas, covered in a green chile and pumpkin seed salsa, also prompted raves. The short rib barbacoa tacos were satisfying and there was plenty to take home for leftovers. No matter what you order, make sure you add a side of lightly charred Mexican street corn ($3), sweetened with lime aioli and big enough for three to share. But skip the flat potato side ($3).
Alamexo Cantina doesn’t take reservations. On a busy Saturday night, we spent a 20-minute wait in the cozy sliver of a bar sipping our margaritas. The waiter was attentive and prompt.
Once we moved to our table, the service faltered. Our waiter delivered the complimentary chips and salsa to the table and set up bowls of avocado, jalapeño, onion, cilantro and tomato to make guacamole, then left us waiting several minutes before returning to make the delicious dip. Other servers attempted to give us another diner’s appetizer and credit card. But on a different, mellow evening and a quiet lunch hour, the service was reliably helpful.
Lake acknowledges there’s a learning curve to the new place, adding that diners are figuring out “how to use” the restaurant, by, say, splitting guacamole and an entree between two to keep the cost down for lunch. And he doesn’t want to be “preachy” about the quality of the ingredients. But his servers should feel free to fill in the gaps. After all, when diners are used to paying for large portions of cheap Mexican food, the small portions made of high-quality ingredients may need some explaining.
Similarly, I wanted more when it came to dessert. The Cantina serves complimentary fried dough (buñuelos), dusted in cinnamon, that tasted more like a chip than a treat. Instead, the restaurant would do right to offer the same warm churros served at the downtown spot. We’ve certainly paid for the privilege.
ALAMEXO CANTINA: 2 1/2 out of 4 stars<br>Food • 2<br>Mood • 3 <br>Service • 2 <br>This new addition to the 9th and 9th district is a standout spot for margaritas. The regional Mexican cuisine is light and intriguing but pricey for its casual label.<br>Location • 1059 E. 900 South, Salt Lake City; 801-658-5859.<br>Online • alamexocantina.com<br>Hours • Tuesday-Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.<br>Children’s menu • No, but mild food made on request.<br>Prices • $$<br>Liquor • Beer and hard liquor<br>Reservations • No<br>Takeout • No<br>Wheelchair access • Yes<br>Outdoor dining • Yes<br>On-site parking • Street and parking lot<br>Credit cards • All major