One does not so much beat the heat as lean into it at Midtown’s Cantina Alley, the 3-month-old al fresco bar/restaurant that sits on a midtown Sacramento alley.
A misting system helps cool the outdoor dining area, to which overhead sun sails lend some shade. A ceiling covers the cantina’s bar space. But the heat still was unavoidable during our lunchtime visit on a recent, 101-degree Saturday.
Yet what could have been stifling instead felt sultry, thanks to remarkably refreshing cocktails, superb fish tacos and a captivating, artfully designed atmosphere that makes one feel as if a Mexican beach, or urban mercado, might lie just outside the cantina’s hacienda-style, wooden-gated front entrance.
As we sat at the bar that day, we studied its colorful glass tiles made from photographs of Mexican street scenes taken by local artist Ruben Briseño Reveles as we also admired a striking Reveles portrait on the wall behind the bar depicting a woman in Dia de los Muertos makeup. To our right stood a group of young men who encouraged me to “chug, chug, chug” when my beer-and-tomato juice michelada arrived.
Though we appreciated the enthusiasm, I cannot recommend chugging the michelada, because it comes with an overturned, potentially nose-bonking Corona bottle in the mug, and because Midtown Cantina bar manager Oscar Escobar’s expertise is to be savored. Escobar’s house mix, combining Clamato juice, Tapatío and Worchestershire sauces and other ingredients, enlivens the Corona, usually Mexico’s most boring export. The Corona (Pacifico is used on occasion as well), in turn, smooths the spicier elements of the tomato-juice mix. This drink gets tastier as it sits and starts to absorb the fatty flavor of the chicharrónes (pork rinds) garnishing it.
Though the drink’s $7 cost makes sense when breaking down ingredients, it still would taste delicious at $9 or $10, given the craft involved. A few of the cantina’s craft cocktails do run into the double digits, but every item on its limited, still-evolving Mexican-street-food menu costs $9 or less, with tacos running $2.50 to $4.
This is as much a place to drink as to eat, so it makes sense one of its best items lets you do both. The “La Sandia,” a $23 drink meant for one or two people, arrives in a scooped-out watermelon filled with watermelon puree, silver tequila, agave nectar and fresh lime juice. Tajin chili-citrus salt helps modulate watermelon sweetness the same way the Corona did the michelada’s acid and salt.
The straws through which we drank the La Sandia sometimes yielded small chunks of melon, with watermelon and pineapple slices served alongside the drink offering more substantial bites.
It tasted like summer, and vacation, as did fish tacos made with a red snapper coated by a batter whose beer content and crunch both were subtle yet discernible, the latter standing up to the three tasty house sauces Cantina Alley chef Arturo “Angel” Cienfuegos applies to the taco – a tartar-like one made with yogurt, plus jalapeño-cilantro and mango salsas.
Pineapple-salsa brightness offsets pork fattiness in the al-pastor taco, also a winner. The cantina’s two other taco offerings – arrachera and potato – lacked distinction. Same with the taquitos plate, most notable for a generous serving of five taquitos for $6.
The better deal was the $4 elote, or corn on the cob covered with a tangy, mayonnaise-based sauce and dusted with Mexican spices. The corn is so juicy that projectile spraying as one bites into it is not uncommon. Pretend it’s the misters.
The sandwich-like pambazo, made with French bread painted with adobo salsa and filled with potato and longaniza, was satisfyingly homey on the hot day we tried it and likely would taste even better on a cooler day.
We had discovered our favorite food item on a previous visit, on a mild evening: the pozole verde, made from Cantina Alley co-owner Art Aguilar’s mother’s recipe. Shredded cabbage and pickled red onion, added late in the cooking process, lend texture and snap to a soul-soothing broth of chicken and roasted poblano pepper. This stew offers a reason just on its own for visiting the cantina. I would have ordered it again that Saturday had the temperature been closer to 90 than 100.
We left that day before it hit 101, motivated by a belief that dining and drinking outdoors after the temperature passes the century mark is margarita-seeking madness (Cantina Alley’s margarita, by the way, is a perfect balance of tart and sweet). But plenty of people have stuck around during the hottest points of the recent heat wave, Aguilar said. Nor did patrons shy away when it rained this past spring – they simply took cover within the tent that Aguilar and Cantina Alley partner Max Archuleta brought in.
There often is a wait for a seat at the 75-person-capacity cantina. The crowd, when we visited Saturday and on two weekday evenings, ran a little older and less hipster-ish than the midtown norm. Aguilar and Archuleta said the crowd gets younger late on Friday and Saturday nights, when the kitchen closes at 11 p.m but the owners open a second gate and set up a grill to cook hot dogs and hamburgers to sell to cantina patrons or revelers from nearby bars.
Cantina Alley serves hot dogs and hamburgers but not the chips and salsa that have been a staple of Mexican restaurants in the United States. Instead, the cantina offers gratis chicharrónes, and eventually will alternate those with other snacks, such fruit, that are more true to Mexican cantinas. This practice reminds us of the chili-dusted sliced mango that comes free before meals at Carmichael’s 9-month-old Mesa Mercado, which sits indoors but is designed to mimic a Mexican mercado. Cantina Alley’s emphasis on street food reminds us of downtown Sacramento’s Chando’s Cantina, which opened a few months before it.
Such similarities are due as much to coincidence as convergence, since Cantina Alley was in the works for more than two years before its completion, after facing delays in obtaining city approvals.
Aguilar, born in Mexico and raised in Woodland, formerly partnered in a Woodland deli and a midtown Sacramento sports bar. He also owned an art gallery on Del Paso Boulevard, with that latter interest reflected in Cantina Alley’s many works by local artists, including a mural by Joshua Peregrina, just outside the cantina’s southern gate, of masked Mexican wrestling legend El Santo.
Aguilar and Archuleta, a veteran nightclub manager, up the eccentricity factor with a ceramic dog that sits on the small structure holding the cantina’s bathrooms, and an arrangement of glass shards that top a nearby outdoor wall. Both indicate measures taken by homeowners in Mexico – where houses are close together and rooftops thus just a hop away from each other – to guard their property.
Painted just below the bathrooms’ “sanitarios” sign is a smaller one reading “2 pesos” –an homage, Archuleta said, to the price some Mexican merchants charge people who use their restrooms for bathroom tissue. (It’s free here).
It’s admirable that the cantina’s art- and design-savvy ownership team is willing to include touches that are less than aesthetically pleasing in pursuing authenticity. Their displays of slightly skewed humor only enhance the overall pleasure of visiting Cantina Alley.
Midtown’s Cantina Alley
2320 Jazz Alley (between J and K and 23rd and 24th streets), Sacramento. 916-970-5588, cantinaalley.com
Hours: Noon-10 p.m. Sunday; 3-10 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday. 3 p.m.-2 a.m. Friday. Noon-2 a.m. Saturday
Beverage options: Full bar. Mexican craft beers on tap. Craft and commercial Mexican bottled beers. Limited wine list. Sangria.
Vegetarian friendly: There are options.
Gluten-free options: Yes
Noise levels: High
Ambiance: The hacienda-style exterior wall, interior open-air setting and plentiful artwork depicting south-of-the-border street scenes make one feel as if one is stepping from a Sacramento alley way into Mexico.
A festive, creative atmosphere combines with well-crafted food and cocktails for a highly enjoyable experience.
The fish tacos and pozole offer reasons to visit just on their own, and the elote is juicy and tangy. But the potato and arrachera tacos, and the taquitos plate, lacked distinction. Every cocktail we tried was stellar, as were the Mexican craft beers on tap.
Friendly all around, but especially attentive at the bar.
The excellent $8 pozole and $7 michelada are good values, given the craft involved, and although $4 is plenty to pay for a single fish taco, it is worth it for this one.