AS CHEF JULIO Mora set down four tiny dishes, three filled with jewel-like shades of red and one pale green, he quizzed me as to their contents. The first was an oily mixture of five chilies pureed into a sauce, next was a green-chili-andhorseradish combo, then "the liar," named because it comes in with a sweet tomato flavor that quickly turns into a full head of heat, and finally a smoky pineapple purée with the sharp bite of habanero.
The proper names of this complementary quartet of salsas may be long forgotten, but the lingering heat didn’t diminish so easily, and part of that has to do with Mora’s pure joy at sharing his collection of chilies with the patrons. I did get special service, but so did the other four tables on a slow Saturday when I ventured to Felipe Mendez’ newest Mexican eatery, Cantina Royal.
Mendez, who owns the nearby La Superior, started Cantina Royal to create a sort of balance between street food and sit-down meals. The restaurant opened about two months ago in the old Monkey Town spot on North Third Street and, just like the former tenant, you have to be looking for it in order to find it. But once you do, it’s amazing to see the space’s transformation, mainly in the form of a spectacular chandelier that makes the high-ceilinged room feel more intimate. When you walk in, you can either sit at one of the banquettes or at a padded swivel chair-lined bar. Both are comfortable, though if you manage to get a view of the vast window, made private by a tall seat back, it’s fun to peer at the people peeking in over the barrier.
Like Mendez’s other restaurant, Cantina Royal takes traditional Mexican dishes and adds flourish, but here he makes them more appropriate for dining in. This comes at a cost—or rather, the dishes do. Some are worth the price tag, like the flauta-esq corneta de maciza ($12), a long tortilla stuffed with tender pork, a rich, tomato-y Sonora sauce cooled by the fresh cheese and layer of Mexican creama smoothed on top. Others, like the overly salty, small portion of chistorra con toreados de cebolla ($9)— pork sausage sautéed with onions and jalapeno—are not.
On the simple and sweet side of the menu, I loved the califa ($9), a type of taco Mora said is the cream of the crop when it comes to Mexican street food. His version works much better for a plate, where the thin, juicy stripes of boneless Angus rib eye nestle seductively on a fresh, piping hot tortilla.
Another star dish is the tostadas de pulpo borracho ($8). The restaurant pickles the tender chunks of octopus in house, and the meaty, firm texture is just the way this cephalopod should be. The drunken tamarind sauce it comes with helps the sweetness of the meat blossom out.
Also on the drunken side, the michelada ($8), however nicely spiced with Yaya sauce, was not worth the money. Not only did I feel the bartender cheated me out of a full beer, which run $3 to $6, but there was so much ice in the glass I got about six sips before my $8 cocktail was terminado.
Full of chips, meat and spice, we skipped having the buñuelos, a Spanishstyle dessert fritter, in lieu of sampling some chilies Mora hopes to serve on the side with the upcoming brunch (slated to begin any week now he said). We were completely satiated, though that didn’t stop us from trying the chilies and chilisoaked cocktail olives Mora offered.
Whether or not Cantina Royal really has anything to add to an area already saturated with Mexican food and taco stands is yet to be seen, especially with prices that won’t draw in the San Loco crowd. But if Mora continues to give customers the personal attention he displayed on my recent visits, his sheer charisma could have regulars lining up just to find out what chili he’s playing with next.
>> CANTINA ROYAL
58. N. 3rd St. (betw. Wythe & Kent Aves.), Brooklyn, 347-763-2938.