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Thursday, November 27, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 20.0° F  Partly Cloudy
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Francisco's Cantina draws on the family cocina
Special sauce
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Credit:Carolyn Fath

Francisco's Cantina occupies the building that was until recently the downtown branch of La Mestiza, and before that, Subway. It's a warm, bright space with brick walls, a convivial little bar and prime outdoor seating on East Main.

Proprietor Francisco González is the nephew of Josefa Trejo, who runs Taquería Guadalajara on South Park Street. He's part of an extended family that originally hails from the state of Querétaro but whose younger generation has since moved to Mexico City. Francisco's father and mother run a restaurant in downtown Mexico City, and Mom has joined him here temporarily to help with the opening. That is to say, Francisco's Cantina is the real thing.

The menu looks like it offers the usual list of Mexican-restaurant cuisine but quickly distinguishes itself in details. An order of the beer Sol arrives with a shaker of salt (as it should) and is a great accompaniment to tortilla chips and fresh salsa.

Francisco's tacos are the good kind. Two nutty corn tortillas with choice of chicken, el pastor (pork), steak, chorizo or tongue come topped with chopped onion, cilantro and a little green salsa. The tongue is a bit overdone, but the steak is excellent, as is the chorizo. The el pastor and chicken are both fine.

The gorditas are glorious, piping-hot pockets perfectly suited for bar time - and since the restaurant is open until 3 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, they're well on their way to becoming legend. Huaraches, native to Mexico City, are oblong disks of masa and beans fried in the shape of a sandal and topped with meat, onions, lettuce, salsa and cheese. Here they are also sumptuously garnished with alternating streaks of ripe avocado and thick crema, making the dish look something like a massive Mexican version of a dragon sushi roll.

It's the sauces, however, that will make Francisco's name. The mole is purported to be his grandmother's original recipe. It is rich with the taste of spice, nuts and cocoa, and comes on a massive burrito ideal for a quick lunch. I wish the mole appeared more often on the menu. The enchiladas verdes are steeped in a tomatillo sauce bright with lime and as sour as green grapes. The two house hot sauces that are available if you ask are in contention for best in Madison: The red sauce has deep, smoky, complexity; the green sauce is piquant lime and tomatillo - sweet, sour and spicy.

A few other burritos dot the menu and are huge. So is the alambre, a massive platter of meat, rice, beans, lettuce, guacamole and sour cream large enough for two people. It comes with tortillas on the side and becomes a sort of "make your own taco" platter. The delicious chiles rellenos consists of a large pepper in a light, herby tomato sauce that exudes bay leaf. It comes filled with a Mexican cheese more like ricotta than the greasy Monterey Jack or mozzarella that often makes the dish heavy.

Although it's not something I would normally order or expect to be good, the seafood chimichanga turned out to be a guilty pleasure, despite the imitation crab. Fruit of the sea in a nice crisp chimi, glazed with crema - it will raise eyebrows and then get a nod from unbelievers.

Then there's the tacos dorados, a plate so good it could be the poster child for what makes Mexican food crave-worthy. Corn tortillas are rolled around chicken, fried until the ends caramelize and the tubes gain satisfyingly crunch, then doused with thick crema and dotted with chunks of chewy grated white cheese. Slightly larger than a flauta and not as greasy, these texture torpedoes occupy the same universe as cannoli, savory but every bit as decadent. They are joined on the plate by a big helping of excellent guacamole, shredded lettuce, pico de gallo and pickled jalapeños. Sinful.

The bar is working to offer piña coladas, sangria and a few other beverage items soon, but for now Francisco's offers sodas, beer and margaritas. Sadly, the margaritas are a bit disappointing but come in three sizes, one of which is ginormous - 36 ounces for $9. Luckily, it's simple to ask for a tequila with fresh lime juice, as the service here is swift and gregarious.

The big-city cheap eats that Francisco's Cantina serves are made with care. The sauces set it apart from the competition. The right food at the right price in the right location-this endearing new restaurant has what it takes to become a local favorite.

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