Bonita cantina

Midtown’s Cantina Alley

Good for: Instantly feeling like you’re in Mexico City
Notable dishes: Crispy potato taco, ceviche, al pastor taco

Midtown’s Cantina Alley

2320 Jazz Alley
Sacramento, CA 95816

(916) 970-5588

This is California, so we’re no strangers to Mexican food. In Sacramento, we have upscale and downscale, regional and Americanized Mexican restaurants. What we didn’t have—until now—is a traditional cantina.

Co-owners Art Aguilar and Max Archuleta have cleverly recreated a Mexican-style, open-air cantina right on Jazz Alley. It seems incongruous to wander down a residential back street to stumble upon the raucous, brightly painted Midtown’s Cantina Alley.

But there it is—slightly sanitized, perhaps—and full of charm and people and a million things to look at. From bright orange walls to life-sized murals and Day of the Dead iconography, the place teems with atmosphere.

Like a traditional cantina, though, there isn’t a large menu. This is Mexican bar food, using a few ingredients in a multitude of ways. You’re really there to drink or socialize, although what they do have to eat stands on its own.

Almost everything comes with expertly crafted, housemade corn tortillas. They’re browned from pan cooking and nicely chewy. Try them wrapped around al pastor, skirt steak or fried fish. These are street-sized, so you’ll want at least two at a time, and they’re minimalist—so quality counts.

We especially liked the al pastor taco ($3.25), rich with spiced achiote sauce and topped with onions and pineapple rojo sauce. All the sauces are fairly spicy; get them on the side if you have gringo taste buds.

The beer-battered fried snapper in the fish taco ($4) comes with two salsas: mango-avocado, adding a burst of sweetness, and jalapeño-cilantro for heat.

Only the crispy papa taco ($2.50) arrives in a fried tortilla, the better to corral the succulent mashed potato within. Topped with shredded cabbage and cotija cheese, it amps up with a fiery green cantina salsa. It’s also great with a few chunks of wayward arrachera (skirt steak) nestled on top.

The chicken flautas ($7) must be popular, because the kitchen occasionally runs out of them. If they are on offer, expect five or six crispy rolls, halved and topped with green salsa cachanilla and salsa roja, whose spice subtly escalates. While we really enjoyed them, it’s not a lot of food.

More filling is the pozole verde ($8) made with chicken rather than the usual pork. Tender shreds of meat float in a flavorful broth with red onion, hominy, radishes and cilantro. While it doesn’t pack the oomph of Bravos Taco Shop’s pozole, this lighter version comforts even in warm weather.

The most recent addition seems to be ceviche ($9), served like tostadas on mini tortillas. Bits of mango and onion dot the mound of fish, topped with avocado and salsa roja. They’re like something you’d find seaside, rather than 85 miles inland.

Despite the traditional food, Cantina Alley exists more as a bar. Except for weekends, they don’t open until 3 p.m. and they stock hard-to-find Mexican micro brews like Harry Polanco red ale ($7) and a slew of mezcals. Or go with a group and order an enormous La Sandia margarita ($23) mixed in a hollowed-out watermelon.

A short cocktail menu includes a signature margarita ($9)—one of the better ones locally—and a unique Michelada Puerca ($7) garnished with chicharrones and house spice mix. Get it with the standard Corona upended on top or choose one of the beers on tap.

So far, with beautiful weather, the open-air dining room makes an ideal locale. While the space has misters and some shade tarps, scorching heat and rain seem like potential issues. But because the cantina stays open until 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday, the fiesta is sure to continue all through the summer nights.