Review: Amigos Cantina
Kirkwood’s first cantina hits the piñata dead on
Photograph by Katherine Bish
Gloriously civil it is to go for a fine evening stroll, window-shopping, ducking into the store that beckons with some alluring consumer product or other, and pondering, as you amble, where tonight’s supper will be taken. Downtown Kirkwood provides one of the few local avenues for this wonderful diversion. And if it’s a Wednesday evening and there you are a-walking and a-pondering, consider Amigos Cantina, where, on that night, the considerably above-average Mexican-based menu is supplemented wonderfully by “Mexican tapas.”
The tapas are, of course, more properly antojitos: appetizer portions of delectables aimed at accompanying the occasional frosty beverage. It’s not a grandiose selection, and they’re reasonably priced, nicely sized for sharing. Along with a couple of those aforementioned beverages, a satisfying meal is realized for about half of what you’ll pay at other upscale Mexican eateries.
Many of the items on the antojitos menu are familiar, though there are some decidedly different takes. Gorditas, for example, are the Durango version, a thick, pitalike tortilla stuffed with shredded chicken, beef or pork (go with the last), along with cheese, refried beans, lettuce and tomatoes. “Mini burritos” is tautological—if a burrito ain’t mini, it is, by definition, a burro—though these nicely stuffed and wrapped flour tortillas are about half the size of a more normal burrito. Get the beef version, which comes with a creamy dollop of refried beans and a thoroughly pleasant blend of white and yellow Mexican cheeses inside that add much to the flavor. The tomatillo salsa accompanying the burritos is noteworthy. Fresh and zesty, it’s chunky, with a rewarding mouth-feel far superior to the many pastelike salsas around. (The same can be said for the excellent house-made guacamole.) Amigos offers creditable deep-fried chicken wings; opt instead, though, for the unique direction the kitchen goes in with its chicken legs, which are seasoned with a spicy rub, oven roasted, then simmered in a chipotle cream sauce.
While everyone’s got their “best you’ve ever tasted” version of chiles rellenos, walnuts probably don’t figure into many of them. Along with shredded chicken, raisins and tangy Chihuahua cheese, the stuffing here includes walnuts, adding a rewarding, toasted crunchiness to the jalapeño peppers (poblanos are used on the entrée version) that are rolled in bread crumbs then deep-fried and served with a smoky chipotle mayonnaise. If you’ve had huaraches, the pleasantly chewy masa dough “sandals” topped with refried beans and other goodies that are available all over Mexico in one form or another, you’ll recognize Amigos’ take on “Mexican pizza,” though a flour tortilla is substituted, topped with beans, chorizo bits and cheese, along with slivers of green onion and black olives.
Disks of corn tortilla tostadas, topped with poblano-scented chicken and steak with chilies, are worthwhile. The same tortillas wrapped around shredded chicken and cheese and deep-fried into taquitos will taste different than you might expect—they are far less greasy than at many other places.
Some antojitos miss the mark. A cheese dip of melted Monterey Jack tasted more like gloppy Velveeta; not even a generous crumble of chorizo makes it anything but potluck-supper ordinary. Nachos fare little better. The tortilla chips are wonderfully fresh, but the combination of black beans, chilies, green onions, and on and on is too busy. Ceviche, on the other hand, which gets more bad renderings than Elvis on black velvet, is outstanding here. A chilly goblet of white fish, shrimp and scallops is tossed with tomato chunks, nibbles of onion, cilantro and chilies, then topped with avocado slices and marinated in a spiky, piquant lime juice. Getting just the right amount and concentration of citrus in a ceviche is challenging. It’s got to be enough to “cook” the seafood, but not so much as to be overpowering. Amigos gets it right. The true ceviche connoisseur, however, will appreciate the restrained use of the chilies in this presentation: just enough to give it a spicy bite, but not enough to overpower. And don’t miss the “tiger’s milk,” the juices that remain in the cup, a classic antidote for resacas—hangovers—that’s tasty even if you haven’t overindulged.
Speaking of that liquid refreshment, you will remember that we mentioned antojitos are happily paired with such. Amigos provides luxuriously. From a Dos Equis XX Amber with a body fuller than a Russian discus hurler’s to a wispy light Corona, the cantina offers 10 Mexican beers with enough range to suit any palate. Its margarita almost instantly became the new standard by which this drink is locally measured. The secret here appears to be fresh lime juice that accompanies the drink’s tequila, Cointreau and agave nectar, rather than a prepackaged mix.
Amigos, located right off Kirkwood Road in the heart of the city, is a comfortable little spot. You’ll find it easily; the wooden shingles on the outside are splashed in glaring, painfully bright rainbow colors. Inside, the décor is like the result of a collision between Gringo Jones and a Yucatán crab shack. Exposed beams and unpainted wooden walls adorned with ceramic, nightmarish geckos and other creatures make for a festive, relaxed atmosphere. A hostess interrupted her crayon work (she’d stayed admirably within the lines) to escort us to a comfortable table small enough to allow conversation amidst an ambience happy and loud. Larger parties should pass on dining here; it’s really suited for couples or quartets. Service is crisper than the taco chips; our antojitos arrived within 15 minutes of ordering. But there was no sense of being rushed, making this a fine destination whether one wants to linger or to eat quickly.
The regular dinner menu is quite tempting on its own, mind you. It should be interesting to see what this creative kitchen can do with the more standard Mexican fare featured every night: fish tacos, steak fajitas, marinated chicken, carnitas, mole and enchiladas verdes. Consider, though, especially when the weather is lovely, a Wednesday evening in Kirkwood that culminates with the antojitos at Amigos.
Address: 120 W. Jefferson, Kirkwood
Average main course: $10
Wednesday tapas: $7
Reservations: Solamente para grupos grandes
Bottom Line: Relaxed, enjoyable Mexican-inspired dining