Dear Grub Street: I May Be Loco, but the Food Rocks at El Cantinero


Compare these carefully constructed nachos — invented by Ignacio “Nacho” Anaya near Eagle Pass, Texas, in 1943 — with the anarchistic frat-house rendition.

In today’s Grub Street, blogger par excellence Daniel Maurer questions my review of El Cantinero, an ancient margarita mill catering to students and heavy drinkers on University Place. I totally stand behind my review: The food at this Tex-Mex retro-cantina can be damn good.

Sizzling steak fajitas are now rarely seen in New York, and these come with flour tortillas and a slew of free sides.

Tex-Mex is a misunderstood cuisine, and one that seems to be vanishing from New York’s culinary landscape. Yes, it’s bland, and yes, the brown and yellow gravies tend to run all over everything, yet it represents some of the world’s greatest comfort food, and given the choice between a plain burger and a plate of ground-beef enchiladas sluiced with chile con queso and brown chile gravy, I’d be hard-pressed to choose.

But if you’re looking for a dish that stacks up against any in town at a comparable price, pick the steak fajitas. Sizzling on a cast-iron platter, flinging off meat fumes like barbecue, tangled in caramelized purple onions and scented with orange peel, this tour-de-force platter easily feeds two or three, and the sides are all provided for free: Fresh pico de gallo, guacamole, flour tortillas, moist yellow rice, sour cream, soupy beans — it’s one of the city’s great audience-participation meals, and there’s nothing better to go with an icy Dos Equis.

I’m really not surprised Yelpers revile it. They take no pleasure from a dish’s history, they hate food that’s not faddish, they go off like a cocked pistol with a hair trigger on anyone and anything. I challenge any of them to try the steak fajitas and still claim the restaurant is a load of crap.

And don’t forget, a cut-rate pitcher of potent frozen margaritas in the summer on an open terrace is not a paltry thing, either.

And by the way, Daniel, I don’t work at the Voice offices, so proximity was not a factor in selecting this resto.

“I like the food here, but then I’m no Yelper,” she seems to be saying.