There should be no confusing Cantina Los Caballitos with its across-the-street neighbor, El Zarape.
The serape-wrapped El Zarape, perched on the pointy corner of East Passyunk and 12th Street, is the latest in a steady wave of no-frills Mexican grills to settle in South Philadelphia. Its classic street-fare menu, from huaraches to chilaquiles, is true to its slogan: "Taqueria 100% Mexicana."
Cantina Los Caballitos, meanwhile, is 100% modern-day Philly mutt. Enter through the broad double-arch doors scooped from its bright- orange stucco facade, and you'll land inside a moody gastro-pub for the tattooed gringo crowd. But it's also layered with nice surprises, like a long list of serious high-end tequilas and an intriguing menu that goes way beyond the usual bar burritos to obscure delights such as mole rojo con pavo.
This is especially evident since the recent arrival of new chef Mark McKinney, a veteran of ¡Pasion! and the Royal Tavern, the Bella Vista restau-bar whose owners, Steven Simon and Dave Frank, opened the Cantina. The enterprise would be considerably more convincing if the friendly but undeniably slacker staff didn't mangle the pronunciation of the restaurant's own name ("Welcome to Caba-leedo's!"), reliably mumble nonsense about the various tequilas, or stare blankly when diners ask for dishes as they're written, in Spanish, before translating their orders.
But there's so much to like about this vibrant cantina - especially the youthful energy shot it gives to East Passyunk Avenue's on-again/off-again revival - that I find it hard not to enjoy. The space is evocative and fun, with Southwestern-style wooden plank floors, exposed-brick nooks lit with candles, and spacious wooden booths that lend themselves to feasts among friends, measured not in hours, but in pitchers of bracingly tart margaritas. Go for the $5 Herradura tequila upgrade and time will really begin to slide.
The evolution of this menu, though, really tells the story of what Los Caballitos is trying to achieve, tipping a sombrero to the American burrito crowd, but also challenging it with some more intriguing flavors. McKinney has amped those ambitions up even another notch with intriguingly rustic stews and more contemporary techniques, no doubt influenced by his years in Nuevo Latino kitchens.
The tuna seviche is a variation on Alma de Cuba co-owner Douglas Rodriguez' classic "fire and ice" - a cool dice of lightly smoked fish glazed in sweet coconut milk that tingles with ginger and chiles. The slow-roasted cabrito (baby goat), presented in its tender shredded glory over a banana leaf jeweled with whole cloves of roasted garlic, is a nearly direct homage to ¡Pasion! with a few added Mexican twists.
McKinney takes his starters seriously. His nachos are inspired, in part, by the carefully layered chip platter at Plaza Garibaldi on Washington Avenue. The deep-fried empanadas are stuffed with a zesty crumble of pork picadillo, the piquant olives and sweet raisins sparking a tomato gravy scented with cinnamon and cloves.
Some of the best things come from the daily blackboard specials, such as the smoked mushroom soup that swelled with chile heat, an herby tang of epazote, and the sweet pop of fresh corn. A special mahi taco, though, was disappointing: an open-faced taco topped with blandly seared fish that was a pale competitor to the tightly wrapped, crispy-fish taco wonder at El Vez.
The cooking here does not necessarily aspire to the complexity or polish of El Vez's kitchen. But the flavors are satisfying and well-wrought, especially at $18 an entree or less.
Even vegetable dishes - McKinney was a vegan for 14 years - get a lively treatment. The veggie-centric Royal Tavern crowd can get fajitas vegan-style, with "seitan chicken" bolstered by smoked tofu and wild mushrooms. The nopales salad is a study in textures I loved, the cactus paddles sliced into crunchy, pepperlike strips, both grilled and lightly pickled, that come tossed with pumpkin seeds in a smoked paprika vinaigrette. The "mixta" salad has an addictive dressing that sparkles with the spice of piquin chiles. McKinney's grilled corn (elotes) is also amazingly good, marked with charry heat and glazed with the smoky richness of chipotle butter.
Carnivores are also well-served with an entree list of "plato fuertes" that put an emphasis on the slow braise. Meat from the roasted goat is one of the best options for a taco platter. But there is also slowly stewed turkey that comes over rice with a mysterious, dark pool of rich red mole. My absolute favorite, though, was the suckling pig, brined for 24 hours before a careful roast that renders the meat into silken shreds. Served in gravy tinged with cuminy chorizo and achiote, the meat mingles with sweet chunks of calabaza pumpkin, puffy kernels of hominy corn, and the occasional spark of fresh fruit salsa.
McKinney's Veracruzana-style fish lavished red snapper in a classic coastal tomato sauce tangy with capers and olives - though I would have preferred a juicier whole fish to the drier fillets.
The desserts are a work in progress - the sweet plantains in syrup soused in too much rum, the rice pudding a bit too toothy and heavy on the cinnamon. But there are also some excellent, traditional sweets to compensate, including the creamy flan, and also the pastel. It appears to be a simple scoop of sublimely dark chocolate mousse. But as a spoonful melts on the tongue, it leaves the ringing heat of ancho chiles. Whichever genre of Mexican food that is, I can't be sure, but it is 100% delicioso.