Gringo’s Cantina announces itself to the world with little more than a small banner hung from a not-so-prominent place stating, “Grill and Cantina Open 4 p.m. to 10 p.m.” My brother Eric actually drove around the block twice looking for the place before he called for better directions. And what I found was it might not be a bad idea for Gringo’s to stay low key a little longer, or at least until they can pull the menu together.
And that’s a shame because Gringo’s is fantastically designed at a great location. Our server pointed out it’s only been open a month after the ownership spent years putting the place together. And it shows. For starters, the restaurant is all windows facing Second and Sierra Streets. If the windows were opened up on a warm summer evening, it would make for some pleasurable dining. There’s a significant amount of blond stained wood which lends warmth to the room, and red brick peeking through plastered walls and decorative plants give the place a tucked-away-in-the-jungle feel. Plus, the tables are huge, perfect for large parties. But Gringo’s was entirely empty the evening Eric and I visited, so there was no liveliness about the place. However, I’d ignore the emptiness if even a smidgen of the care demonstrated in decorating Gringo’s could be seen in the food.
Eric and I started with a liter of Margarita ($14), which against all norms comes in a carafe. The Margarita was almost completely melted and tasted like a cold glass of water with tequila, though through the water you could tell the tequila was well portioned. Our server was good about keeping us full of chips and salsa. The salsa was a finely blended and spicy mix of all the vegetables you’d expect. It was quite good, although the chips were hard and cold.
For entrees, Eric chose the two enchilada plate ($9.95) one with shredded chicken and green sauce and the other with beef and red sauce. I picked the grilled chicken fajitas ($12.95). The sauce on Eric’s enchiladas wasn’t half bad, but was entirely undermined by the rest of the plate, which like our chips, was cold and flavorless. After his first bites, Eric had this unimpressed look on his face, which is probably about the same grimace I wore when I got my fajitas. I didn’t even have to take a bite of my fajitas to know where they stood. First, they were not sizzling. Second, there was not a grill mark anywhere on the chicken, and, third, the chicken, tomatoes, peppers and onions arrived in a pool of tomatoey juice, which tasted pretty bland, and this was exacerbated by the fact everything had been sprinkled with this off-putting seasoning.
The highlights of our meals were the pinto bean sides cooked with bacon and sprinkled with cheese. And the low point was the Spanish rice, which didn’t taste all that bad if you could get past its texture which was like overcooked couscous.
I waited for the server to ask us how everything tasted and, for the first time in my life, I was prepared to offer something far more constructive than “It’s fine.” But she never once asked.