Mexican restaurants are a dime a dozen. And unfortunately, more often than not, they all tend to be the same; menus consisting of “combo” meals, ground beef hard shell tacos, etc. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but for today, I wanted something more than Combo #5 with a side of rice and beans. So I drove around, trying to find the perfect place to get my Mexican food fix. I drove down Atlantic Blvd towards the beach on a foggy, misty Saturday evening, when the bright lights of Cantina Louie caught my eye. I had no foreknowledge of this place, no one recommended it, I didn’t Google it or Yelp it. What caught my attention were the brightly lit front patio area and the vibrant purple sugar skull sign – it seemed so fun and energetic. I pulled into the parking lot, hoping the food matched the energy of the décor.
As I pulled open the door, I was immediately met with the cool interior with bright oranges, reds, and purples. It has a very Dia de los Muertos feel to it, with huge murals of skeletons and sugar skulls chotckies. We were greeted warmly by the host and seated quickly. It was busier than I expected for an “early dinner” time. We arrived at about 4pm and the place was bustling. Foodie ProTip: It’s always a good sign if a place is busy during a “non-traditional” eating time.
Our server arrived shortly after we were seated and presented us with our menus. I was so happy to see a sizeable lack of combos one would normally find at a Los Mexicano Generico Restaurante. What I found instead was a glorious collection of authentic tacos (no hard shells here), burritos, quesadillas, and other entrees. But for those still looking for combo meals, there was a small corner of the menu with a “Pick 3” combo dinner, consisting of tacos, burritos, enchiladas, etc.
For an appetizer, we decided to start with Mexican Street Corn, the quintessential definition of Mexican Street Food. Cantina Louie only serves their street corn on the weekends, so I definitely jumped on it. Cantina Louie’s version was served on the cob, slathered in mayo, queso fresco, and chile piquin (as kind of a powder/salt) for a little heat. I’ve had a few street corns since arriving in Jacksonville, and I have to say, this version was by far my favorite. It was done simply with minimal ingredients. The corn was sweet and cooked perfectly – tender with a bit of crunch. The mayo wasn’t overpowering and added a bit of coolness to the chile piquin. I couldn’t stop eating it. Bits of corn were getting stuck in my incisors, as they do when you eat corn on the cob, but they yelled, “Keep going, we’ll be fine. You can pick it out later!” I was going at it like an old style typewriter. This was a fantastic first impression of Cantina Louie.
I decided to continue the theme of street food and ordered two different tacos and a sope. All of the tacos are made on a traditional corn tortilla or flour tortilla. The first taco was a Taco Fresco. The Taco Fresco was made with a corn tortilla, filled with grilled skirt steak, topped with fresh lime pico de gallo, and queso fresco. Skirt steak is a tough cut of meat. Cooking and slicing correctly can turn an otherwise inedible piece of shoe leather into a succulent, beefy, price choice of cow. Cantina Louie did a wonderful job cooking their skirt steak. It was tender and easy to chew. The lime pico de gallo tasted fresh and the shredded queso fresco added a light, creamy note. It was a delicious taco.
My second taco was a server’s recommendation: The Surf & Turf Taco. It’s served on a flour tortilla and filled with skirt steak and shrimp, then topped with avocado and a drizzle of sriracha ranch . The sriracha ranch was fantastic. It really tied the taco together. The heat from the sriracha crept up on you, but was soon balanced out by the coolness of the ranch. I was able to get the flavor of the sriracha without all of the heat. The avocado had a nice creaminess against the slight snap of the well-cooked shrimp. The skirt steak was the same as my other taco; tender and juicy. Both tacos were fantastic.
My final street food selection was the sope. A sope is a handmade corn patty (think corn tortilla, but much thicker) topped with refried beans, skirt steak, field greens, tomatoes, sour cream, and queso fresco. It had good flavor, but I preferred the tacos to the sope. The corn patty seemed tough. It was hard to cut through and chew. I did eat it last, so it’s possible that not eating it right away while it was hot and pliable may have played a factor. I’ll probably pass on it the next time I go, but luckily, Cantina Louie doesn’t lack in menu options.
My dining partner decided to play it traditional and went with the Cantina Quesadilla. It’s a basic quesadilla stuffed with cheese and grilled chicken. It is served with a side of lime pico de gallo, guacamole, sour cream, and field greens. This was a monster of a quesadilla. Most quesadillas are a bit on the thin side, but Cantina Louie’s was very thick, with what seemed like two full chicken breasts worth of diced chicken and melting cheese dripping and bubbling down the sides. The tortilla was grilled nicely, adding a bit of crunch and texture. I was very thankful the chicken was well seasoned and not bland. The cheese added flavor instead of being the only source of flavor like so many other chicken quesadillas I’ve had at other places.
Not everything I ordered at Cantina Louie was a home run, as was the case with the sope, but not everything is going to be perfect. The rest of our order was thoroughly enjoyable. The staff was friendly and knowledgeable, the décor fun and festive. I highly recommend Cantina Louie Mexican Street Food if you’re looking to take a break from Los Mexicano Generico Restaurante. They even have a second location in St. Augustine, if you’re in that neck of the woods and craving tacos.
This post is by Rich Herrera. Since moving to Jax a couple years ago Rich has been voraciously devouring all local Jacksonville restaurants have to offer.