Tacos have been popular for a long time, so it’s a bit surprising they are suddenly the latest food craze.
Taquerias seem to be opening everywhere in Madison these days. One of the newest is Canteen, which opened a block off the Capitol Square in May.
Located at the corner of Hamilton and Carroll streets, Canteen operates in the attractive space that formerly housed Nostrano Restaurant.
The restaurant’s interior has been revamped to fit the cuisine, and it now features bright primary colors and Mexican folk art. There is still a bar along one side of the room, and the only drawback to the redesign is an oddly placed television behind the bar that seems out of place and distracts from the dining environment.
Apart from that, Canteen has a friendly, upbeat vibe. Its tables are large enough and spaced so you don’t feel crowed, and employees are helpful and generally appear to be having a good time.
Best of all, the food is terrific.
Canteen’s tight menu is divided into four categories: snacks, tacos, plates and sides. The restaurant also emphasizes its bar, which specializes in margaritas and other tequila-based cocktails.
The house margarita ($7) is a good one, but it’s worth spending a few bucks more to upgrade to the El Jefe, which uses milagro reposado tequila and agave nectar (along with fresh-squeezed lime, patron citronge and salt) for a much smoother drink.
Meals begin with a server placing a small paper bag filled with duritos at your table. The popular Mexican snack is slightly addictive, made of puffed wheat and flavored with chili, lime and tajin spice. (The first bag is free. Additional bags cost $1 each.)
The menu offers just six appetizers (or snacks): duritos, escabeche (a pickled vegetable plate), guacamole, jicama salad, ceviche and nachos.
The jicama salad ($6) was disappointing. Consisting of spears of cucumber and jicama, along with orange, radish, red onion, toasted sesame seeds, cilantro and citrus vinaigrette dressing, the salad sounds good on paper but does not come together as a coherent plate. Part of the problem is the dominant items—cucumber and jicama—lack flavor. Try as they might, the other ingredients can’t overcome their blandness.
Apart from that misstep, the rest of our food was tasty and satisfying. Tacos come wrapped in two corn tortillas, and we liked the three we tried.
The Tecate fish taco ($5) features a generous chunk of Mexican beer-battered cod along with lively tajin spice, sour cream, green cabbage, citrus salsa and cilantro. The vegetarian calabacitas taco ($3.50) combines garlic-braised squash with avocado and tomatillo puree, queso fresco (Mexican cheese), watercress, sesame seeds and red onion. The grilled farmer cheese taco ($3.50) has loads of flavor with the cheese, black bean puree, roasted tomatillo and serrano salsa, avocado, blackened corn salad and cilantro.
Other tacos come with such main ingredients as al pastor (marinated pork), pork belly, green chili chicken, carne asada (grilled beef) and barbacoa beef brisket.
Apparently, respectable taquerias these days are including on their menus elote-style street corn, which is popular throughout Mexico. The slightly blackened corn sometimes comes on the cob, but Canteen’s is served in a bowl with cotija cheese, tajin spice, chili-lime butter and chili-lime aioli, grilled scallion and serrano chile ($4). If you like sweet corn and haven’t tried Mexican street corn, you should, because it’s a delicious comfort food.
From the plates (or entrees) category, check out the sweet potato dorados ($10). Served with three dorados per plate, this dish features crunchy, rolled corn tortillas filled with sweet potato, corn, black beans, chihuahua cheese, chili sauce, sour cream and avocado. The entire affair is smothered with tomatillo puree and a blackened corn salad for a filling, flavorful main course that you won’t soon forget.
I’m not sure Madison needed another taco restaurant, but Canteen is a welcome addition because of the quality of its food and the quaintness of its dining room. The fact that service is good and the food is so affordable only adds to its appeal.
Bill Livick is a freelance writer who writes entertainment stories and Madison-area restaurant reviews for The Gazette.