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Every table was full, and empty bar stools hard to come by, at 11:45 a.m. on a recent Thursday at Chando’s Cantina. The beloved local Mexican-food chain’s first full-service – and first central-Sacramento – spot had been open a few weeks and already was packing in as many people as possible.
Or so we thought, until visiting at 7 on a Friday night, when people stood two deep near the bar, waiting for seats. We considered returning at 2 a.m. (the cantina stays open until 3 a.m. Thursday-Saturday) to see if the rush lasted into the wee hours. Drooping eyelids intervened.
Sacramento’s hippest food explorers no doubt would trace the origin of this region’s street-taco fixation to an obscure food truck in south Sacramento or Yolo County. But Chando’s Tacos, the walk-up taco shack that opened in 2010 on Arden Way and since has sprouted a mini-empire boasting four more locations (including the new cantina), has been the main local engine in popularizing the trend.
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Owner Lisandro “Chando” Madrigal quickly built a reputation for offering spicy yet flavor-balanced grilled meats housed in fresh-tasting tortillas, at inexpensive prices ($7.49 for three tacos and a soft drink, on Arden). “Chando’s” became shorthand for a fast, tasty hangover cure.
Now Madrigal has entered the other side of the hangover equation, in a bar space, at 15th and H streets, that most recently held the short-lived Rum Rok tiki bar. Chando’s Cantina offers 35 premium tequilas along with craft cocktails and plates of food meant for sharing.
The food menu holds the tacos and other Tijuana-style street food for which Madrigal is known while sampling from the cuisines of Oaxaca, Mexico City, Veracruz and Michoacán. Here, everything is made from scratch, including tortillas, meaning the wait time is longer and prices a bit higher ($10 for three tacos) than at other Chando’s spots.
Menu: Tacos, nachos and harder-to-find items, like tlayuda, an Oaxacan dish composed of a grill-toasted flour tortilla holding refried black beans, grilled avocado and other ingredients, and pambazo, a Mexico City sandwich made with bread dipped in enchilada/mole sauce and seared.
Drinks: Craft cocktails are named for figures from Mexican folklore/urban legend, like the dog-monster “El Chupacabra” and the weeping, grieving ghost “La Llorona,” who supposedly drowned her children and herself as payback for her husband’s cheating. Five Mexican beers, plus Firestone 805, on draft. Sangria.
Price point: Food items and craft cocktails run $5-$12. Beers run $4.99-$5.99 per pint, $10 for 32-ounce bottles.
Ambiance: Decorative bar-top tiles tie in the hacienda-red and turquoise wall paint and enhance an overall lively yet comfortable vibe. Though the crowds Chando’s Cantina has drawn since it opened create considerable noise, the ruckus is not so great as to irritate.
First impressions: This place has the potential to become a midtown staple if it stops being slammed for long enough to work out kinks we encountered with its food.
Embracing the idea of this place as distinct from Chando’s Tacos, we stayed away from tacos and ordered items we never have tried before, such as the $6 “bottomless street chicharrones” appetizers. We have eaten chicharrones, but not chicharrones shaped like wagon wheels and served in endless supply, with lime wedges and hot sauce. Though these snacks carried a nice crunch, they lacked much flavor.
The tlayuda’s ($10) toppings were perfectly executed, from slightly sweet, creamy black beans to tomato slices whose pink color hid an acidic punch. But the dish’s tortilla base bordered on tough. The best thing we tried was the pambazo ($10), the sauce-dipped bread that suggests a savory doughnut. Queso fresco and crema softened the salty snap of the sandwich’s carne asada filling.
Defying an ingrained childhood fear of La Llorona – who was rumored to appear nightly on a country road near my hometown, intent on causing car accidents – I ordered her in cocktail form. Composed of cucumber, white creme de cacao, agave nectar and fresh lime, she turned out to be rather sweet, with the slightest finishing notes of bitter tears and murderous wandering. Presumably from the lime.
Try it if: You trust in Chando’s and want to experience its fancier form.
Skip it if: You believe authentic tacos only come from walk-up windows.
805 15th St., Sacramento
Information: 916-400-3929, www.chandoscantina.com
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday-Wednesday. 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Thursday-Saturday.