Cinco Cantina & Tequila Bar: Only the tequila and beers are authentically Mexican

It seems fitting that Cinco Cantina & Tequila Bar opened in the Village of Merrick Park this past Cinco de Mayo. Not only are the two "Cincos" in sync, but the holiday is celebrated more here than south of the border, just as Cinco Cantina's food is much more American than Mexican.

Cinco is part of restaurateur Carmine Giardini's Palm Beach-based Carmine's Restaurant Group, which made its name on Italian cuisine, so one can't be blamed for trusting his lasagna more than his Mexican chicken lasagna (a layering of poultry, peppers, sour cream, cheese, and corn tortillas).

Actually, that dish wasn't necessarily Giardini's idea; he hires professionals to come up with menus. His selection of Miami native John Belleme as Cinco's opening executive chef seemed an excellent choice; Belleme has impressed at numerous Palm Beach establishments over the years (most recently at Giardini's Umi Fishbar and Grill). However, after four months, Belleme left and Nunzio Billante (formerly of Rocco's Tacos) took over and put his own spin on the menu. About a month ago, Billante was replaced by Manuel Nuñez, who consulted for El Scorpion in South Beach and worked at Broward's Cantina Laredo and Tijuana Taxi Co. For those keeping score, that's less than eight months in operation and three chefs.

Complimentary chips and pico de gallo are brought to the table at lunch, but they cost $3 at dinner. The former are thin and dusted with spices and annatto, which doesn't do much except turn your fingers orange; the salsa fresca was flecked with cilantro.

View a slide show of Cinco Cantina.

Servings of guacamole and chips start at $10 for the regular — a creamy, smooth purée with tomato, onions, and a touch of lime juice. Other avocado variations include one mashed with roasted garlic and another with sour apple, jícama, tomatillo, and cucumber.

The busy bill of fare encompasses starters, soups, salads, sliders, tortas, quesadillas, enchiladas, tacos, burritos, fajitas, chicken wings, main plates, and side dishes. We began with an appetizer (or bocadito) of jalapeño rellenos. The deep-fried, canapé-size snippets of pepper came encased in patchwork tempura coating topped with white cheese and drizzles of goat cheese crema. Centering the plate was a dish of avocado-ranch dip that tasted like the failed product of a generic salad dressing company. Fried cigars of duck flautas were dry and bland.

The best entrées we sampled were a hefty chile relleno and juicy carne asada fajitas. The tempura-fried poblano pepper was softly swelled with goat cheese, cojita (a melted hard cow's milk cheese from Michoacán), and tomato sauce with a hint of Rioja wine. Mexican-style achiote red rice, colored with annatto, is also served with this and other entrées, but consistently arrived lukewarm. Refried beans grace most plates as well.

The guajillo-marinated carne asada fajita boasted as much flavor as all the other foods combined. The waiter didn't inquire about how we wanted the meat cooked, but the sliced skirt steak arrived searing hot and a succulent medium-rare. There were plenty of accompaniments too: rice, beans, warm flour tortillas, guacamole, sliced lettuce, diced tomatoes, sour cream, plus sautéed peppers and onions on the sizzle platter.

Carnitas michoacanas brought chunky cubes of tough and underseasoned pork — although the meat packed a robust pork punch. Salsa brava was supposed to be the accompanying sauce, but a side of tomatillo salsa arrived instead. The same red rice was served, as were frijoles borrachos, or pinto beans cooked with beer — more Tex than Mex, but moister and tastier than the refried rendition.

Asked to describe the jaiba enchiladas, our waiter summed them up in one word: spicy. The slender duo of tortilla-wrapped crabmeat crêpes was bathed in a very creamy, cheesy, white salsa suiza (Swiss because of the cheese); bits of tomato and avocado floated within. Spicy is the one thing it was definitely not. In fact, remove the tortillas and you have a creamed crab casserole. More to the point: It was boring after two bites.

Chicken tinga tacos didn't exactly tingle the palate either. Tinga is supposed to denote a guajillo-and-chipotle flavor, but the nubs of poultry, though softly braised and pleasantly seasoned, didn't pack any chili punch. Jícama-carrot slaw is the standard taco garnish here, and tortillas are offered soft flour or hard corn.

View a slide show of Cinco Cantina.

Service is wanting. On one occasion we wanted (and waited for) a server to bring menus, then wanted her to return to take the orders, and then wanted the appetizers to come our way. The food eventually arrived — although bulky menus remained on the table until, in a flash, our main courses arrived; then the menus were cleared for space. The amiable staff was off-kilter all night. A return visit brought a sharper server, even if a take-out order was packed with two servings of rice and no beans.

"Holy mole chocolate" tasted a lot like a commercially produced, mole-less chocolate cake with sweet chip-flecked frosting on the outside and mousse in the middle; still, it works to sate chocolate cake desires. Another decidedly un-Mexican dessert is tres leches with mango, bananas, and toasted meringue. Other options are churros and rice pudding (all are $7).

Mexican-restaurant design elements make for a colorful ambiance. The expansive 366-seat dining room includes a long bar and two private rooms. And what authentic cantina would be complete without a barrage of giant TV screens and blaring club music? The patio will get you away from the TVs, but speakers also trumpet the tunes outside (and on one visit meshed discordantly with better songs floating in from Yard House next door).

The cerveza selection is the strongest incentive for coming here. Bottled beers from Mexico, Europe, and South/Central America are $5; domestic brews including Key West Ale and Yuengling go for $4. Modelo Especial and Negro Modelo are on draft ($5), as are Blue Moon ($5) and Strong Bow ($6).

Those who insist on wine with their refried beans can choose from 14 each of reds and whites from familiar vintners such as Woodbridge, Napa Cellars, and Ravenswood. Carmine's house wines are also available (and soon you'll be able to drink the same label at CG Burgers, Giardini's latest Merrick Park venture).

The "spicy margarita" gets its name from a salt-and-chili-powdered rim, although a substitute jalapeño salt rim spiked the lips in a similar vein. The Don Julio tequila-based cocktail was tasty if a bit light on the Don ($8 for regular, $12 for large). Other signature drinks include a Rioja-Cognac-Cointreau sangria and "sweet & sour tequila" with Chambord and sour mix — which surely has to taste better than it sounds.

And as the "Tequila Bar" part of the moniker indicates, there's plenty of blue agave being poured straight. Shots of name-brand blanco, reposado, and añejo go for $9 to $11 each.

Cinco Cantina & Tequila Bar really is an ideal spot to gather for Cinco de Mayo. It's the other days of the year I'm not so sure about.


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