Mission Cantina has one impressive set of cojones- and not in a good way. South Amherst’s latest addition to the mainly mediocre Mexican scene around town boasts a boring menu with impressive prices. For a joint set in the dingiest of strip malls, they’ve got an ego as large as the burritos they’re serving up. On a Tuesday evening, I decided to take Esportoe out to celebrate his graduation. Only one of us would manage to survive the night without vomiting profusely. We were up against a 30-45 minute wait while being stared at by the angriest of Amherst’s notorious smug liberal adult scene. Apparently, Tuesday is Margarita and Forced Coworker Socialization night, so the tiny place was booming.
Accompanied by an abrasive mariachi soundtrack, blasting from ceiling mounted-speakers like Daft Punk, and the ever-tempting scent of pizza in the take-out joint next door, we opted to forge on. In an ideal world, we would have left after the hostess informed us that she was too busy to take our phone number so we wouldn’t have to be confined to the cramped space in order to ensure our table, and this review would show you how good our pizza slice was and how awful Mission Cantina was. Did I mention that nobody recommended we make reservations? And that I didn’t expect to for strip mall Mexican? But we’re stupid college students, so we stayed. That 30-45 minute wait turned into an hour before we were seated. Interesting cocktail flavors and Mexican coke tantalized us from the menu, but at $8.50 minimum for a medium-sized beverage, we opted for water instead.
The food is twice the price of both Mi Tierra and La Veracruzana but looked decent enough. We opted for a sampler of six tacos and chicken mole, along with an order of chips and salsa. It was worth noting that we had a wonderful multi-tasking bartender slash waitress who almost made up for the overt douchiness of the hostess. And luckily for me, I reasoned that I’d be able to eat the tacos with my hands- a boon as my fork and knife were filthy and covered with sticky bits of food. Our chips arrived quickly and came in a huge basket along with three salsas. Exactly what I expected for standard chips ‘n’ dip, but for $4.50, I wanted to see some fucking miracles. The chips were tasty- hot, crispy, and fresh, and, although this may just be something I enjoy, glistening ever so slightly with oil. Although the size was a hair unwieldy, there wasn’t a bad one in the bunch and they were wonderfully craggy, all the better to dip with.
The salsas, on the other hand, had some issues. For .75 cents apiece- more like a buck apiece if you factor in the chips at around a dollar’s worth of tortillas, they came off as kind of skimpy. They were served in an oversized container that made the portions- about an ounce’s worth of salsa per bowl, look very spartan. The flavors were tasty and I appreciated the variety. Of the three- a classic red, pineapple verde, and black bean negro, I definitely enjoyed the black bean the best. It was smoky and smooth, but not terribly thick so it still retained a spreadable texture. The pineapple was fresh and zesty but was separated as soon as it hit the table and made for a very messy eating experience. The red salsa was standard, nothing to write home about. None of them had any heat or spice.
And then our food came. When they were dropped down at our places, the bus boy neglected to mention which tacos were which. Understandable for three, but rather annoying for six, especially in the dark, cavernously lit restaurant where they all basically looked the same. Going down the line, though- we ordered carnitas, fried fish, al pastor, chorizo, chicken, and carne asada. But we’ll get back to those.
Esportoe’s chicken was pretty good. Served with rice and beans, mole dripping off of everything, it was an incredibly well-rendered rendition of the sauce. When eaten with the sides, however, it was as though we were eating a different sauce completely. It translated so differently on protein versus on a carbohydrate, the latter full of cinnamon and smoke, tempered by the meat. It was a little too intense, slightly imbalanced and overpowering almost every other flavor. His chicken was crisp and tasty. Served with four tortillas, it made tacos better than the ones I’d ordered.
I won’t mince words: three out of my six tacos were edible. Not good- that distinction goes to only one taco. Three out of six were food-like enough to put in my mouth and chew. We’ll start with the failing three. We bit into the carnitas taco first, only to find that it was incredibly dry and stringy, not to mention cold and flavorless. The chorizo was even more offensive. I mean, it’s pretty difficult to screw up chorizo, unless of course you fry little chunks of it into oblivion until they’re charred and black, add excess oil when you realize you’ve seared off all the fat and moisture, and serve it on a tortilla. The result is burnt chorizo popcorn pieces. That was the first time I’ve ever spat something from a restaurant into my napkin. Hideous. The carne asada hovered on the cusp of edible and dog food, with a flavor nowhere near steak and a heavy-handed cuminy aftertaste, so oversalted I could feel my blood pressure take a direct hit.
The chicken and fried fish tacos were stuffed full– at least a half cup of cubed, grilled chicken and a large hunk of fried fish spilling out of the tortilla, but were undistinguished in flavor. The slaw atop the fish barely registered as part of the taco and the chicken was bone-dry, improved in flavor as well as in texture with a little salsa dribbled on top. The only taco we both enjoyed was the al pastor, and here, the definition of enjoyed is more like “tolerated.” Sweet, tender, and tasty pork. Whatever. It was edible. It’s also worth mentioning that both our plates looked like they’d been through a shooting range. How were they so chipped!?
The bill came to around $50 with a tip and to our delight a few hours later, came with a free round of food poisoning for Esportoe, who texted me the one-word review of “threwup” later that evening. Absolutely horrendous. It’s double the price and double the attitude. It made me wonder whether the few bright spots in the meal were merely flukes. After reading all of this, you’re probably guessing that the restaurant is new and still wobbling on its soft opening legs. It’s been open for six months. Anywhere else and this place would have been shuttered within a month, but I’m guessing its loyal fan base will keep it festering for a little bit longer. My advice- cut off those cojones and serve them in a better taco. If you cook it correctly, maybe I’ll even come back. Mission Cantina, meet Mission Improvement. It’s a good thing.