If I had a duck quesadilla for every time someone outside of New Mexico has mentioned Coyote Café to me, I'd be tired of duck. Coyote Café still defines the Santa Fe food scene to those who don't live here, and its global popularity has been instrumental in maintaining Santa Fe's image as a culinary destination.
I must premise my review by saying that I usually like omnipresent co-owner and Executive Chef Eric DiStefano's food at Coyote Café very much. When La Cantina at Coyote Café re-opened under new ownership, it seemed like an exciting prospect: It has a large balcony, innovative cocktails, fresh air, great people-watching and casual food.
So when I stumbled onto Water Street after three surreally bad meals there, I was crushed. With La Cantina looking to become the place where locals and tourists co-mingle as elementally as the spices in a mole, I wanted to believe that each unsavory experience had been a fluke.
Cocktailing, that irresistible force wherein magic meets alchemy, is dear to my heart. Co-owner and self-described mixologist Quinn Stephenson's cocktail menu appears full of promise but sadly, its Achilles' heel is inconsistency. After singing the praises of the Q-cumber Cooler ($9)—an ambrosia of cucumber-infused vodka and lime that was at once brisk and astonishing—I was embarrassed by its cruel imposter, served on a subsequent visit; it was sour, flabby and lacking any nuance of alcohol. The Signature Watermelon Mojito ($8.50) was pale and watery; the one my dining companion and I had contained no muddled mint—in its place, we found a thick blanket of simple syrup at the bottom of the glass.
The four margaritas sampled had been modified to their detriment; not one was an improvement on a well-made Silver Coin, and the Pink Geisha ($8) was excessively sweet. That said, the Coco Loco ($8.50), an enormous helping of cool smoothie with a tropical kick, was delicious.
On two occasions, the smell of bleach wafting to our table, presumably from floors being cleaned (during dinner?), was so distracting that we sat blinking away tears until it had passed.
So how about the food?
Fresh guacamole ($9), was served in a small mound at the side of the plate, alongside an inexplicable ramekin of salsa. The guacamole was strange: underseasoned and curiously carbonated. I smiled at our server.
"Is this supposed to fizz?" I asked. She went to check.
"I don't know, buddy," she said with a smile.
Yuzu ceviche ($10.50), described as "Japanese lime macerated scallops, shrimp and sea bass, tortilla boomerangs and avocado salsa" contained no discernible trace of yuzu, scallops or sea bass; instead, tiny, translucent shrimp studded a tasty, albeit misrepresented, bowl of salsa. There was nary a boomerang in sight, but the curls of fried plantain that arrived alongside were not left uneaten.
Nacho Totopos de la Cantina ($10.50) is a motley balancing act of freshly fried corn tortillas that immediately turned soggy under a boatload of chile, beans, shreds of unmelted cheese and other miscellany. There were too many sauces on board to count. As for the garnish of two pieces of pulled meat, I was left wondering if it was braised pork or my Aunt Kathy's leftover chicken.
Chimayo red chile Caesar salad ($8) is the better of the two salads offered, though the pieces of lettuce are tiny and unsubstantial. Perhaps the greatest insult was the Hatch salad ($9): baby greens with tempura green chile, griddled polenta and honey vinaigrette. The griddled polenta was the tastiest morsel of the entire meal, as evidenced by much hand-slapping as four ravenous diners fought over the last piece. The dressing was cloying and as thick and sweet as corn syrup; its conception a mystery.
Eduardo's mole chicken tacos ($13.95) were, like other tacos sampled, frustratingly dry and flavorless. A few hopeful bites of the flat iron steak tacos ($14.95), and the Molido Rojo rubbed mahi mahi tacos ($15.95), left one diner wondering, "How can they make it look so flavorful and taste like nothing?"
What did taste like something—something bad—were the slaws. Both the cucumber slaw with spicy caper vinaigrette accompanying the tacos, and the coleslaw on the burger, reminded me with vigor how difficult it is to find good slaw in Santa Fe. The burger ($14.95) was pretty good; not the best in town as one might expect at its price, but inoffensive. One has to wonder, however, about the conspicuous inclusion of "sea salt" as an ingredient mentioned in the description of the burger. What's next: a list of the ingredients for the bun?
After my last meal at La Cantina, I walked into a reliable haunt looking for a dessert with which to stifle my irritation. An exuberant local restaurateur was waxing poetic about a recent meal at La Cantina to a patron sitting at the bar. I wanted to howl at the moon in protest, but I was too hungry. Will La Cantina coast on its own legendary reputation?
Perhaps. For now, let's just say the food is on the rocks—with salt.
La Cantina at Coyote Café
132 W. Water St.
Open 11:30 am-9:30 pm every day.