What’s going on inside Verde Cantina’s kitchen? No sé 

Cocina confidential

click to enlarge bartlettimage-verde_cantina-0022.jpg

Photo by Rob Bartlett

More than a few poor souls in Thornton Park mourned the departure of Tijuana Flats, the friendly neighborhood taqueria that satisfied the famished for seven heavenly years. Why, their doleful wails echoed across the canyons of the internet for nearly a year before Verde Cantina rode into town, megaphone in hand, offering sweet and sometimes spicy salvation through what they called "Mexican soul food." Surely soul food would lift the spirits of the despondent, no? And possibly tequila?

At first blush it would appear so, dear readers, but I say to thee, beware false prophets. "Mexican soul food," it seems, equates to nothing more than straight-up Tex-Mex fare, no matter all the marketing-speak on their website. Oh sure, antojitos like ceviche verde served over a large plate of crushed ice ($9) might say otherwise, but truth shall reveal itself in the form of shrugs – shrugs of utter indifference. It's ceviche fashioned from tilapia, after all ... but the tomatoes, sour and turned, just plain gave us the willies. In fact, those same rancid-tasting tomatoes rendered chunky "made to order" guacamole ($9) practically inedible. When guac tastes like sour cream, you know something's gone horribly wrong inside the kitchen. "Fresh ingredients" are what's promised, but these tomatoes didn't taste fresh – either because they weren't, or possibly because they reacted negatively to another ingredient or mixing vessel.

The funny thing is that good ol' pico de gallo tasted just fine. We employed it and a salsa blended with chipotle and ghost peppers on some seasoned tortilla chips to cajole our appetites – which, frankly, were just looking for a place to hide. Then along came roasted fresh corn ($5) – not called elote, and not coated in cojita – but damn, it was hard to fault anything with this cob. We liked it. A lot. We even licked the cheesy sauce off the husks.

They play a wicked game at Verde Cantina, toying with our tongues, inducing them to salivate for more, then cracking a whip at our chops and leaving us stunned, wondering whether to spit or swallow. Take the trio of soggy tacos ($13): The flavors of the meats contained within – chicken, pork belly, carne asada – were as indeterminate as time itself (which at this point was dragging on), but when the tacos disintegrated into a sort of fattoush of corn tortillas, onions, queso fresco, slaw and saucy fillers, an existential query followed – why are we (still) here? Why, so we could try the meaty saltlick called the Mexican burger ($13), a beef-chorizo number glued together with Oaxaca cheese. Or perhaps so we could sample a cold cheesecake chimichanga ($7), which had the added effect of resuscitating lost childhood memories of many a fried ice cream enjoyed at Chi-Chi's.

Or maybe it was to witness the exchange between our chirpy server and my dining comrade on "completion" of our meal:

SERVER: "You guys ate a lot! So what was your favorite? (10 seconds of silence, but it really felt more like 30 or 40 seconds)

DINING COMRADE: "THE CHIPS!!" (Color drains from server's face)

I couldn't stand to see her deflated countenance, so I blurted "AND THE CORN!" which seemed to do the trick. The smile returned and she happily picked up our plates, but not before adding: "Come back and see us soon!"

Gracias, but no gracias.

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