Even before it officially opened, Javelina — New York’s new Tex-Mex sensation — was already a giant hit. Some Texas friends and I found ourselves parked at the bar on a recent snowy evening with no hope of either getting a table or eating a full meal where we were, since little food was available at the bar. So after a margarita or two and a bowl of Bob Armstrong dip, we got up and left, picking our way around patches of black ice as we crossed Union Square on the way to El Cantinero.
Hidden in plain sight on University Place, El Cantinero ("the Bartender") has never been embraced by the foodie community, but has enjoyed the steady patronage of NYU students looking for a festive meal, office workers in search of cheap frozen margaritas, and homesick Texans. It has long been the city’s leading outpost of Tex-Mex cuisine, a collection of recipes that was invented by Mexican immigrants to Texas in the 40s and 50s, though some standards like chili con carne are far older. At its most basic, the cuisine utilizes prosaic ingredients like flour tortillas, ground beef, processed yellow cheese, onions, and canned chiles as substitutes for more exotic ingredients commonplace in Mexico, but rare in the Lone Star State at the time.
The cuisine was a hit in New York beginning in the 60s, sometimes peddled as a sideline by Spanish restaurants, and for decades it was the only type of Mexican food New Yorkers knew. El Cantinero officially opened in 1990, but long before that was probably a renegade member of a local chain called Pancho Villa’s. In contrast to the spare modernity of Javelina, El Cantinero looks like a south-of-the-border theme park. The downstairs is dark, with plenty of secluded nooks for daters. Colorful strings of lights hang from the ceiling, and the walls are lined with black-and-white photos of Pancho Villa, hero of the Mexican Revolution.
Up a steep stairway find a barroom that hosts nightly disco parties patronized by young Mexican singles, and a rooftop deck with fruit-print plastic tablecloths and pastel papercut penants. Unfortunately, that space is closed in winter. In warmer months it can make you feel like you’re in an outdoor café in Austin, or sitting on the edge of San Antonio’s Riverwalk.
That evening my friends and I sat down to pitchers of on-ice margaritas ($42), and bargain platters of mixed fajitas, served on sizzling cast-iron platters heaped with grilled skirt steak, chicken, and shrimp, along with sauteed bell peppers, onions, tomatoes, and orange slices. The sides were every bit as profuse: guacamole, sour cream, pico de gallo, yellow rice, black beans, pinto beans, and both flour and corn tortillas. Though El Cantinero doesn’t list chili con queso on its menu — a dish we’d eaten obsessively as college students in Texas — we easily improvised a bowl by asking for "yellow cheese" (an off-menu item), and roughly mixing the molten mass with pico de gallo and hot sauce.
That entire feast cost the five of us just a little over $200, including three fajita platters, the improvised chili con queso, and two pitches of margaritas. And we went away full and tipsy, and almost glad we hadn’t gotten into Javelina. Other Tex-Mex delights available at El Cantinero include hard-shell tacos stuffed with chicken or seasoned ground beef, cheese enchiladas that these days utilize mild orange cheddar instead of Velveeta, chimichangas like miniature deep-fried burritos, nachos in their original form fanned out like a sunflower, and some excellent guacamole that’s just lime juice, onions, and ripe avocados — from the days when restaurants like this wouldn’t think of using cilantro. 86 University Place, (212) 255-9378.