Miami's Mexican restaurants are, for the most part, utterly predictable: margarita, chips, salsa, burrito-enchilada-fajitas, and the bill, por favor. Usually the only question is whether they'll make you suffer through a mariachi band. I wasn't expecting much different from Javier's Cantina Mexicana and was perhaps even less encouraged than usual because of China Grill Management's track record with the prior occupants of this shoebox-shaped Lincoln Road location. Lou's Philly Cheesesteaks never came close to replicating that famous Philadelphia sandwich, and NOA was a wimpy mimicry of a real Asian noodle shop. Still, although I had an inkling that Javier's wouldn't possess the funky authenticity of Homestead's Mexican restaurants or the adventurous upscale cuisine of Broward's Eduardo de San Angel, my attitude going in was focused on the positive -- I figured it was bound to be better than Señor Frog's.
Cantina is an Italian word for "wine cellar," but on this side of the Atlantic the term refers to a bar, saloon, or any restaurant that serves liquor with Mexican or Tex-Mex fare. These sorts of establishments usually feature a ramshackle or honky-tonk décor, but that isn't the case with Javier's: Chili-pepper lights have been installed in the windows, cacti painted on giant mirrors, panchos and sombreros hung, and Corona flags strung, but otherwise it's the same narrow, modern, clean-lined room as in its previous incarnations. The ground floor is still made up of a single row of two-top tables clinging to the wall opposite an open kitchen, which takes up most of the space, while upstairs seating provides only slightly more of a dining-room feel. Upstairs, downstairs, it doesn't really matter, as on pleasant evenings most people prefer sitting at outdoor tables on the mall -- that is, after all, the primary appeal of most Lincoln Road restaurants.
Javier's may not look like a cantina, but it definitely specializes in serving alcohol, particularly beer and a generous selection of tequilas and tequila-based drinks. I sipped "la tradicional" margarita and dwelled upon the notion of money not being able to buy happiness, noting that two fellows at the adjoining table had surely purchased a good giggle or two by shelling out $19 for a frosty, seemingly bottomless pitcher of Sauza margaritas, while my piddly $6 drink didn't yield any giggles at all. Margaritas here happen to be very good, and, judging by the festivities going on beside me, a pitcher's worth is an excellent deal.
Javier's Cantina Mexicana
805 Lincoln Rd, Miami Beach
305-925-0050. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Sunday through Thursday noon till 11:00 p.m., Friday and Saturday noon till midnight.
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Maybe I didn't feel the effects of the tequila because I was consuming too many chips -- they were crisp and not at all greasy, the accompanying bowl of salsa a zesty compromise between mildly fiery peppers and icy tomatoes, lime juice, and cilantro. Tortillas, in fact, are Javier's strong suit. Steamy, fragrant flour tortillas were easily the most attractive aspect of fajitas; the sauté of steak, tomatoes, peppers, and onions wasn't bad but tasted more like American pepper steak than sizzling-on-a-platter strips of flank that this dish generally implies. Three soft, lightly griddled, coaster-size tortillas likewise elevated red-snapper tacos with flakes of grilled, assertively seasoned fish served open-face upon them. A cilantro-potent pico de gallo came on the side, as well as a healthy heap of aging field greens that were too mildly dressed; mixed salad on a return visit yielded more-recently picked lettuces.
Nachos, quesadillas, shredded beef flautas, and chicken enchiladas with green sauce were, if uninspired, freshly prepared and reasonably priced, especially for Lincoln Road (main courses run from $9 to $18). I'd suggest choosing one of those and avoiding the few menu items that stray from mainstream Mexican American: A pair of skinny Yucatán pork chops were grilled with an annato paste devoid of Yucatecan cinnamon-clove aromatics; ceviche lacked the pristine freshness necessary for success; and braised turkey was as dry as the earth and blanketed by a muddy, muddled red mole sauce. When it comes to dessert, you have no choice but to stick to the basics, as there are only three south-of-the-bored offerings: flan, tres leches, and coconut rice pudding.
Javier's may be as predictable as I'd predicted, but it can still be appreciated for what it is: Sit outside, sip your drinks, crunch your chips, munch your burritos, admire the parade of passersby, and relish the small enjoyments of dining at a pedestrian Mexican restaurant on an American pedestrian mall.