With a few exceptions, it's not easy for grownups to find a place to dine on Mill Avenue. But is the tide starting to turn?
The debut of Canteen Modern Tequila Bar makes me very optimistic.
Considering the location (downtown Tempe's student-saturated main drag, where there's pub and diner grub, cheap ethnic fare, and sandwiches aplenty), the name (with its boozy emphasis and party-time implication), and the cuisine (Mexican — which obviously has stiff competition in this city), I can't say that I set foot in this chic new eatery with high expectations for anything more than a decent margarita and, perhaps, a healthy dose of eye candy. I'm not jaded — just realistic. Not to mention that none of my friends over the age of 25 go out of their way to dine in Tempe these days.
But based on a few recent visits with food-obsessed pals who were surprised to be invited to dinner on Mill Avenue, of all places, I suspect that will soon change. Tequila's great and all, but Canteen also happens to be a great destination for contemporary Mexican food, courtesy of Mexican-born chef Luis Millan, former sous chef at The Mission (whose exec chef, Matt Carter, also consulted on the menu). The tacos alone were so delicious that they're already on my short list for the Valley's very best.
Restaurateur Julian Wright, who also owns La Bocca Urban Pizzeria + Wine Bar, a block down the street, took over the space that housed the doomed on-again, off-again eatery Regions Bistro, and I suspect he wisely burned a lot of sage to get rid of those bad vibes.
Nowadays, the restaurant glows with candles and white pendant lamps that look like giant snowballs. Plush booths and a banquette lined with cozy tables surround a lounge area with chocolate leather couches under a wooden pergola in the dining room, while the tequila bar itself is sectioned off with a half-wall and opens to a wraparound brick patio. Indie rock and dance tracks are blasted at a level that forces tête-à-tête intimacy, while the crowd is mostly Gen X and Y, a mix of sociable young professionals and bohemian types.
As bars go, too, Canteen isn't a run-of-the mill college watering hole. There are more than 100 kinds of premium tequila and mescal on the drink list (enough to please aficionados, I'd say) along with well-crafted margaritas that go down easily. The Casa Margarita, made with blue agave blanco and fresh lime juice, was refreshing after a busy day at the office, while the Paloma — spiked with grapefruit zest and grapefruit soda — seduced me into ordering another round on a girls' night out. One night, Wright himself brought out a round of top-notch beverages. It was nice to see he's so hands-on.
My suggestion for him, however, would be to school the servers a bit more (please, don't take my guacamole without asking, and don't sit down next to me to take another customer's order) and to ensure that there's always a hostess at the ready. Everyone I encountered was amiable and eager to please, and with some polish, Canteen can really shine.
Meanwhile, the food was executed beautifully and tasted as good as it looks. I'm still dreaming of those tacos.
Served upright in zigzagged metal trays, heaped with shredded cabbage, crumbled cotija cheese, and fresh cilantro, they were clearly inspired by Mexico City street tacos: hot, three-bite-size, and wrapped in excellent homemade flour tortillas that were tender, a little chewy, and kissed with that toasty griddle flavor. You could make a meal out of these or order a bunch and share as appetizers (although almost all the entrées here are basically platter versions of what's inside the tacos).
Roasted-then-grilled Corona and lime chicken, brightened with cilantro, was moist and flavorful, and made a tasty encore in the robust posole verde, spicy hominy and tomatillo soup topped with ripe avocado slices and served with shredded radishes on the side. Juicy grilled carne asada, seasoned with lipsmacking cilantro chimichurri sauce, was so good I had to order it twice. Grilled, tequila-marinated shrimp got a sweet, tangy boost from sour orange and date, while achiote-braised pibil (pulled pork) was luscious with a dollop of mango-habanero salsa.
It's too bad, though, that extra salsa wasn't complimentary. A squirt of chipotle salsa or cascabel-smoked onion would've been welcome right around that second, less-succulent bite of some of these — but, of course, by then, it was too late to do anything about it. It's also a bummer that I had to order three of a kind. If the tacos must be served as trios, why not let us mix and match?
Roast corn and poblano tamales with queso oaxaca were interesting — more like triangle-shaped mini-empanadas, and somewhat denser than typical tamales, they eschewed corn husks but still had that craveable, sweet masa flavor. Grilled chicken and poblano skewers tasted great with creamy chipotle aioli (as did everything else I dunked into that aioli). However, the Canteen chopped chicken salad fell short of greatness simply because its lemony vinaigrette was bland. If that actually had some oomph (or at least salt), I would've inhaled that jumble of chicken, hardboiled egg, tomato, corn, pepitas, roasted chiles, and green apple, with a tangle of crispy beer-battered onions on top.
Side dishes, such as smoky black beans sprinkled with cotija and cilantro, fragrant arroz verde, and bacon-and-poblano-studded pinto beans, made those small plates into more of a complete meal.
What really sealed the deal for me, though, was Canteen's amazing rice pudding — warm, cinnamon-y, and filled with rum-drenched golden raisins, with hot mini-sopaipillas and dulce de leche on the side. I think I'll never be able to resist dessert here, as long as it's on the menu. Likewise, velvety horchata ice cream was mind-blowing. I liked the grilled pineapple-coconut macaroon cake, too, although its minuscule portion was comical, especially since it was dwarfed on the plate by a three-scoop bowl of mango ice cream.
Sure, this is Tempe, and that hyperactive college scene isn't going anywhere. But thanks to Canteen, the mobs of 21-year-olds are going to have to move their skinny butts out of the way for the big kids to join in the fun.