Would you like your tacos with or without a chair?
Taqueria La Mexicana, a longstanding, mostly takeout joint in Somerville's Union Square, now wants you to pull one up and sit a while. It annexed the next-door space, formerly the bar Irish Eyes, and turned it into a pretty little restaurant. (Did you ever think Irish Eyes and the word "pretty" would appear in the same sentence?) It's called Cantina La Mexicana, and it opened in March. The cantina menu is smaller than the taqueria menu, and there's a lot of overlap between the two, with a few more fancified dishes added in. But fancy wasn't what was needed here. Beer and margaritas were, and they're now available, along with sangria, wine, and other cocktails.
The same month, in nearby Inman Square, the folks behind Ole Mexican Grill pulled the chair out from under diners with Olecito, a small, takeout-only space across the street from the original restaurant. If you're lucky, you might be able to perch on one of the few stools while you wait for your order to be assembled. Where Ole's offerings include the likes of roast duck in mole and rare tuna tacos, Olecito keeps things simpler: tacos, quesadillas, tortas (Mexican sandwiches), and burritos.
In a town where many seem to crave Mexican food but truly great examples of the cuisine are few, more options are always welcome. La Verdad's opening day in the Fenway was nearly as anticipated as the Red Sox', the city is hotly divided between pro- and anti-Anna's Taqueria factions, and Angela's Cafe in East Boston commands ferocious loyalty. Bostonians seem to love the bright flavors of Mexican cooking, and its often easygoing price tag doesn't hurt.
Neither Cantina La Mexicana nor Olecito is likely to whip up Angela's-level excitement, but both are solid neighborhood options - if not pilgrimage-worthy, the kind of places that regularly, reliably feed their neighbors. And they know their neighbors' tastes well; both Taqueria La Mexicana and Ole Mexican Grill have been in their respective squares for years.
Cantina La Mexicana is operated by Roberto and Carolina Rendon, who opened the taqueria 13 years ago. The new space looks great, with archways and hardwood floors, wood accents and skylights, and walls painted in bright, saturated hues such as fuchsia and tomato. On any given night, the clientele is a mix of tattooed hipsters and parents (some of them tattooed hipsters as well) with small children in tow. If Roberto Rendon is in the house, he'll greet you warmly, and maybe - for no real reason, just because - decide you need a glass of wine on the house with your grilled steak.
That steak is delicious, a generous piece of chewy-tender meat tasting mouthwateringly of the grill, served with grilled avocado (ours wasn't particularly grilled, but it still went well with the meat) and chilaquiles, strips of tortilla baked into a piquant casserole. At $15.95 the plate is not only a steal, it's the most expensive thing on the menu.
Also excellent are the chiles rellenos. The stuffed poblano pepper is not deep fried, as is often the case, and the resulting dish is an improvement. Instead of heavy and soggy, the pepper is simply soft, roasted, and pleasantly hot. It's stuffed with cheese and your choice of chicken, potatoes and chorizo, or beef. The chicken version is good, though the chicken itself takes backstage to the pepper. With potatoes and chorizo plus a sunny-side-up egg, this would be a great breakfast.
Another standout on the menu is an appetizer of gorditas. These fat pats of cornmeal dough, like tortillas that have been eating a few too many snacks lately, are about four bites each; they're topped either with seafood, beef, or pork, plus avocado. They're addictive, savory snacks, the dough just chewy and resistant enough to biting, the toppings simple but full of flavor.
Maine shrimp seviche is fine, but it could use more onion, lime, and cilantro for added zest. Nachos are a dull exercise, simply topped in beans and cheese when we get them; the promised salsa is missing. They're also available con carne, which is clearly the way to go.
A potato-chorizo burro (not really any bigger than your standard burrito despite the lack of diminutive) is hearty and homey, stuffed with rice and beans, pico de gallo, guacamole, and crema. Tortas, or Mexican sandwiches, are less compelling - the ratio of ingredients tilts too far in the favor of bread.
This cooking in general is homey stuff, and that's its appeal. For dessert there's flan, which is good unless you get one that's still frozen in the middle, as we do on one visit. Margaritas are totally satisfactory and come in several incarnations, including a jalapeno margarita. (Though that may be on hold for the moment.) Sangria comes in traditional red and also pear, both quite good; the beer list includes Negra Modelo and Pacifico. Wine skews toward South America; I wonder if anyone ever actually orders the prosecco.
There's also a good caipirinha, but on one evening it comes with a garnish of multiple fruit flies. One fruit fly in a drink is a forgivable and random occurrence, to be fished out and given no more thought; three or more fruit flies is a problem. We tell the waitress and order a different drink; she brings the replacement margarita but never removes the caipirinha from the table. At the end of the meal, it's still on the bill. We ask her to take it off, and she balks, then checks with someone in the back and removes the charge. No big deal, just don't expect service here to be ultra-professional. That's not what Cantina La Mexicana is about.
The food at Olecito skews slightly more toward gringo tastes than Cantina's. It's sweeter, with less traditional flavor combinations. True to its name, Olecito is tiny; it's painted ochre, and in the evening it glows in the darkness as you approach, a sort of anti-"Nighthawks" full of cheer and bustle. On weekends, the little room nearly bursts at the seams with people waiting for food. Everything is prepared to order, and the folks throwing quesadillas on the presses and assembling tacos can fall behind. (If it's busy and your order is big, check to make sure you have everything before you go. A quesadilla or some guacamole sometimes gets left behind.) While you wait, listen to the woman behind the counter explain that they only take cash but there's an ATM down the street to customer after customer with the patience of a saint.
Tacos here are so big and laden with different fillings they're practically open-face burritos. The Baja is an excellent concept, like a fish taco made with shrimp; the shrimp is breaded and fried, then folded into the tortillas together with cabbage, radish, cilantro pesto, and chipotle mayonnaise. On one visit, this taco hits the spot, the flavors layered in harmony. On another, there's too much mayo, and that throws things off a bit.
Olecito's carnitas are a bit disappointing, big hunks of pork with some dry bites and very few crispy bits. The meat is paired with pineapple salsa in a taco. The arrachera, or flank steak, taco gets soggy quickly, but the meat and pinto bean spread inside are good. Also in there: Jack cheese, lettuce, and avocado sauce. Lettuce! It appears again on the rajas taco, which features the welcome heat of roasted poblano pepper strips. To me, a real taco does not include lettuce; it features charred meat, onion, lime, and salsa, and that's about it. Though some of these creations are tasty, I think I'll persist in calling them open-face burritos.
Fortunately, there's no lettuce in Olecito's actual burritos. A steak version is excellent, nice bites of meat with beans, rice, guacamole, and pico de gallo. Olecito's guacamole is simple and very good; the accompanying chips are occasionally stale.
Tortas here are on thick, chewy telera bread. "It's like a bulkie roll," patience-of-a-saint girl explains to a customer who wants something to eat but says she hates beans. The Piolin, with chicken, pinto beans, cheese, and chipotle mayo, is a good choice; the chicken is a bit spicy from its adobo marinade.
When the soup of the day is pozole, get it; the pork-and-hominy stew is soothing and satisfying. It's a meal in itself, the perfect thing to eat at the end of a long day, ensconced in your favorite chair in the comfort of your own home.
Devra First can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.