The first thing we noticed about BelAir Cantina, the Cali-Tex-Mex taqueria that opened on Martin Luther King Boulevard last August, is the enormous serpentine bar that is an ideal fit for the roomy, upscale restaurant.
And you can’t miss the West Coast sports vibe, with wall-size photos of people surfing and participating in similar outdoor activities. The restaurant also features large windows that allow natural light to flood the space, and our group appreciated that the music playing in the background and the conversation in the dining room were not too loud.
It sets the tone for BelAir, an energetic restaurant that specializes in tacos with creative fillings and executes them well. The whole place exudes an upbeat, slightly urbane vibe, which wouldn’t go far without a good kitchen putting out fresh, locally sourced and tasty fare.
Meals begin with warm, crispy, house-made chips and a trio of salsas, also all made in-house: a salsa verde made from fresh tomatillos, garlic and jalapenos; a thin roasted tomato salsa with jalapenos; and an orange “spicy arbol” that seemed to lack much spice at all. Instead, we turned to bottles of hot sauce at our table to heat things up.
The menu is built around a nice variety of affordable tacos, which run between $3 and $5 except on Tuesdays and Thursdays, when a select bunch is priced at $2 each. They come with a choice of flour or corn tortillas, two per taco.
The rest of the menu includes appetizers, soups and salads, tamales, fajitas and burritos.
Among appetizers, the kitchen’s guacamole ($7.27) is one of the best in town. It comes with ample chunks of avocado, garlic, onion, lightly pickled radish, cilantro and the right blend of spices.
Another appetizer, esquite ($4.10)—a Mexican street corn dish featuring grilled corn kernels, lime aoli, cotija cheese, chile lime, cilantro and crema all served in a bowl—was all right, but it wasn’t as tasty as others I’ve had around town. The corn didn’t seem to be grilled as advertised, which would have added some flavor and texture.
But we found plenty of flavor and texture in the restaurant’s tacos thanks to the inclusion of a citrus slaw on most of them.
The mango tilapia taco ($3.59) features grilled tilapia with mango salsa and chimichurri sauce in a delightful combination of flavors, but I preferred the Baja tilapia ($3.49), which benefits from the citrus slaw, breaded and fried fish, and a wonderfully rich avocado salsa.
Also great was the kitchen’s shrimp taco ($3.99), which featured the same citrus slaw, plump shrimp, pico de gallo and chipotle ancho mayo.
A black bean and corn taco ($3.31) combines grilled corn queso fresco with beans, sliced avocado, cilantro and crema for another winning recipe.
The ninja pig ($4.25) comes with crispy pork, hoisin glaze and fresh cucumber and jicama providing an interesting contrast to the meat. The Korean beef taco ($4.55) offers chunks of dark, marinated meat and lots of veggies.
The only real disappointment was the soy chorizo taco ($2.95), which missed the mark in terms of flavor with soy pieces, diced potatoes, avocado and pico de gallo.
A side of Mexican rice and black beans was a fairly standard but nice complement to our tacos, whose ideally timed arrival says good things about the service overall. Service was attentive and well timed, as mentioned, but never felt like an intrusion.
Although we focused on tacos, BelAir offers some good-looking burritos and burrito bowls, including carne asada ($11.96), which combines grilled steak with black or pinto beans, crema, guacamole, rice, lettuce, cilantro, chipotle ancho mayo, salsa roja and queso fundido.
BelAir also has a full list of cocktails and other bar drinks, which have established it as one of the city’s favorite happy hour destinations.
I wouldn’t say it offers the very best in Cali and Tex-Mex cuisine in the city, but BelAir has certainly staked its claim as a mainstay of the downtown dining scene. And if you hit it on a Tuesday or Thursday, you can have a fine and filling meal for less than $10.
Bill Livick is a freelance writer who writes entertainment stories and Madison-area restaurant reviews for The Gazette.