When Cinco de Mayo rolled around at Chago's Cantina on Belmont last week, it was chef-owner Chad Head's first time to celebrate the margarita-fueled festivities as proprietor of his own Mexican restaurant. But Head, co-owner of Corky's Ribs and BBQ in Brentwood, knows a thing or two about feeding patriotic crowds. "Fortunately, I've worked at Corky's, where we always have a big Fourth of July," he said, as the clock ticked down to May 5.
That all-American restaurant experience shows at Chago's, which takes its title from a nickname Head earned in the Corky's kitchen. The latest nameplate to fill the ever-changing spot wedged between PM and Cha Chah, Chago's brings a level of operational polish on a par with those neighbors. Sleek granite-topped tables, rich colors, doors that open to a front patio, and efficient staff conspire to create a welcoming watering hole for the pedestrian strip across the street from Belmont University. Chago's (rhymes with Iago's) is the kind of place you can easily imagine passing the time between classes, nibbling on salsa and complimentary tortilla chips (made by La Hacienda Tortilleria), or sipping margaritas blended with fresh sour mix, tequila and triple sec (available frozen or on the rocks).
When it comes to festive brunch-worthy cocktails, Chago's won us over with sangria of red wine, fresh citrus juices, brandy and Sprite, tinged with cinnamon and loaded with wine-stained hunks of fresh fruit. (We preferred the red wine version to the white, which replaced brandy with tequila and omitted the cinnamon.)
But while Chago's has a cheap-and-cheerful-cocktails-on-the-patio vibe, the atmosphere on our visits was as welcoming to children as to college students. With a kids' menu of $3 and $4 plates, and agua fresca made with crushed strawberries, mint, lime and soda water, Chago's puts on an endearing family-friendly face.
Man cannot live on margaritas alone, and when cocktail hour turns the corner to mealtime, Chago's offers a refreshingly inventive roster of south-of-the-border-inspired dishes drawn from Head's imagination and some time spent in San Diego. Naturally, there's the de rigueur repertoire of enchiladas, quesadillas, burritos and taquitos, but there is also a handful of less-ubiquitous items, including shrimp-and-fish ceviche served with plantain chips; chipotle collard greens; spicy wings with pineapple, tamarind or banana glaze; street tacos; and pineapple stuffed with chicken, steak, pork or shrimp.
Following the enthusiastic advice of our server, we ordered mofongo. Indeed, Head's Cajun spin on the traditional Puerto Rican dish was an impressive introduction to the menu. Imagine shrimp and grits, but instead of ground corn, sweet-and-starchy mashed plantains serve as the bed for plump shellfish in a light tomato-based sauce. Easily the highlight of our dining experience, the rustically elegant dish was large enough to share, but it was also good enough to take home as leftovers, which, incidentally, got even better with time.
Unfortunately, nothing else we sampled lived up to the high expectations set by the excellent mofongo. House-made tamales were pasty, not fluffy, while handmade corn tortillas were gummy, not crisp. Guacamole and ceviche — though plentiful — lacked salt and brightness. For a variety of reasons, other dishes failed to win the oohs and ahs that the sweet, savory shrimp dish elicited. Even the best-selling Chago Roll — thin grilled steak wrapped around onions and peppers, cut into sushi-sized cross-sections and topped with poblano cream and cilantro — went unfinished. (And we didn't ask for a to-go box.)
That said, there were enough inventive dishes prepared with fresh ingredients to make us think the kitchen is on the right track and has the potential to fine-tune the shortcomings in time.
Among the signature dishes we'd like to see perfected was the carnitas plantain. If you can imagine a barbecue banana split, you've got the basic picture: a warmed plantain bisected and loaded with ropes of moist pulled pork. Of course, what makes a banana split so seductive is the decadent piling-on of sauces and toppings. That layering of textures, temperatures and flavors was missing from the carnitas plantain. The dish arrived with a tantalizing trace of chipotle-honey sauce made with wildflower honey, chili and olive oil, but there was not enough for all the meat. More sauce would go a long way toward adding moisture and depth of flavor to the pork. Another element — possibly a cool sauce or crisp vegetable — could help enliven the dish.
The Salvadoran-style pupusa — two handmade tortillas stuffed with beans and cheese — arrived with a promising flourish of tangy slaw strewn across the top, but the gumminess of the grilled corn disks overwhelmed the fresher elements.
Locally made tortilla strips bookend the meal, reappearing in the dessert menu in the form of a so-called "sopapilla." The leaf pile of cinnamon-dusted chips topped with scoops of vanilla ice cream is more reminiscent of sweet nachos than the traditional golden-fried pillow of dough drizzled with honey. We also enjoyed the generous slice of fluffy flan bathed in light caramel.
With its creativity, freshness, efficient service and comfortable atmosphere, Chago's Cantina won our affection as a new addition to a favorite dining district, despite the shortcomings of the early menu. If Head and his team can refine the cuisine in these early days, next time Cinco de Mayo rolls around, the Belmont dining crowd will really have something to celebrate.
Chago's Cantina opens at 11 a.m. daily and serves until midnight or later.