58 N. 3rd St, Williamsburg
Rating: 3 out of 5 L's
High expectations aren't always a restaurant's best friend. I had plenty of them for Cantina Royal. It was opened by Felipe Mendez, the man behind La Superior, the hip, Mexico City-style taqueria that's been packed since day one despite having to wait two whole years for a liquor license. It also has big shoes to fill considering it's located in the former home of MonkeyTown, the beloved arts space/restaurant that served as a creative hub in Williamsburg until it closed due to "landlord issues."
Not to say that the food at Cantina Royal isn't good; there are many things worth coming back here for, especially the cocktails and the salsa. Yes, it's made in New York City, but it ain't Pace Picante sauce. It's served in flights of four, each with a distinctive identity. I recommend pairing the crisp, fresh-made tortilla chips with the sinus-clearing chipotle salsa or one of the addictive pickled jalapenos.
Photos by Joe Hume
Next come the cocktails. The Micheladas are particularly good, spicy and slightly sweeter than most, filled with your choice of one of the many Latin American beers available by the bottle, like Bohemia from Mexico and Imperial from Costa Rica. More adventurous is the Mescalero, a mix of jalapeno and arbol chili-infused mescal and Saint Germain, a smoky kick in the ass guaranteed to make things hazy in the morning.
I could kill many an evening like that, just perched at the end of the bar sipping cocktails and endlessly eating chips and salsa. It is, however, a full-service restaurant, and a beautiful one at that. A massive chandelier hovers over the entire dining room, illuminating the blood-red walls and glass-enclosed industrial piping. Black-tile floors give it a Gothic feel, leavened slightly by the casual thatched chairs. It is undeniably hip and pleasant, which is why it's a shame the kitchen isn't more consistent.
Tasting the house-pickled octopus—perfectly tart with a clean sweetness to it, served with a hoisin-esque tamarind drunken sauce, raised the bar to a level the rest of the meal couldn't reach. The thin pork sausages served over a pile of sauteed onions were satisfying enough, as was the meaty pork confit enchilada. Everything else needed work. The shrimp ceviche was all spice and no citrus, the tilapia (not a particularly flavorful fish to start with) was under-seasoned and the less said about the salad the better. Even the guacamole fell flat, void of acid and spice.
My recommendation? Put in a few couches and banquettes and turn it into a cocktail bar. It might just become as popular as La Superior.