350 Darling St Balmain, NSW 204102 9810 0086
|Opening hours||Tuesday-Saturday, 5.30pm-midnight|
ONE THURSDAY NIGHT recently I was in Balmain to review a pub that had received a makeover. At least that was the intention until I wandered past this little gem. As soon as I noticed the light and laughter coming from Cantina Bar, I tossed aside my plans and moseyed on in. This looked like a bar I wanted to be in.
From the footpath, this little hole-in-the-wall space is crowded and colourful. The tables are filled with happy campers, music is oozing out the doors, the staff are bouncing between the tables at great speed and glowing lights lure you in. It's just got that great small-bar vibe.
Inside, Cantina is a skinny, narrow joint that has done well to maximise what little space it has. Tables run down one side, tall chunky wooden bar tables down the other and the bar is squeezed in with the semi-open kitchen while still managing to fit in a few bar stools.
Coloured paper flags hang from the roof, Day of the Dead artworks adorn the exposed-brick walls, chalk-drawn cactuses and fake vines have taken over many surfaces and Tarantino films play on loop opposite a glass wall of wine bottles.
Despite boasting a menu of Mexican street food and authentic cheapo drinks, there's no way a place this pretty and polished would fit in with the actual cantinas in the slums of Mexico. But this is as close as you get to ghetto in Balmain.
Despite the flurry of new Mexican restaurants and bars in Sydney (although, weirdly, none in Balmain), it's been surprisingly hard to find decent Mexican food beyond bland tacos, cheesy stodginess and sludgy guacamole more suited to 3am than 8pm. You're probably not going to find it here either.
Though the food we had was far from bad, it was nothing special. An A3 paper menu extols street-food dishes such as beef churrasco (skewers with chimichurri , $18) and deep-fried tacos with chicken, chipotle sauce, house slaw and tomato relish ($15), which both come recommended by the staff.
Make-your-own fish tacos promised lightly-crumbed barra strips with a pickled salad that was more a watery, weak coleslaw. And the pulled-pork sliders came as little bread rolls slathered in a bit too much messy, tangy sauce.
Snacks such as deep-fried jalapenos are OK but an abysmally small and sloppy bowl of guacamole with a sad-looking basket of corn chips is inexcusable.
Thankfully, the drinks are much better, like the mildly-spiced Jalapeno Margerita (Don Julio Tequila, jalapenos, lime, $16), the colossal Largerita served in a pint (Cuervo Tradicional, agave, lime, San Miguel, $16) or the exotic Mexican beers such as the excellent Tecate lager served with lime and salt ($10).
A succinct wine list includes an ever-rotating list of specials on the glass cellar wall with a few interesting drops. The Argentinian malbec is a safe choice.
My moans about the food seem far from the point here. This lively little bar is more about having fun and kicking back rather than grading each dish for its gastronomic credentials.
The staff are so bubbly they're almost bouncing off the walls in a way that might border on annoying in some places but it seems to fit the vibe nicely here.
This Mexican joint is unlike anything else on offer in Balmain and offers a bit of laid-back, good lookin' fun among the high-end boutiques, wine bars and old pubs of Darling Street, so cancel your plans, wander in and let your hair down.
You'll love it if … you want something other than a pub in Balmain.
You'll hate it if … you've got a big group that wants to get rowdy.
Go for … Jalapeno Margerita, exotic Mexican beers.