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Mex for the people 

Cantina Cinco de Mayo hits the right notes in downtown LR.

click to enlarge THE MOLCAJETE SPECIAL: One of the options on Cinco de Mayo's entree menu.
  • THE MOLCAJETE SPECIAL: One of the options on Cinco de Mayo's entree menu.

"So how as a nation can we sit around and eat Mexican food, and drink beer and make friends? That's the question. If we can do that on a broader scale, I think we'll come out of it all right. — Sandra Day O'Connor

"I'm convinced that anyone who doesn't like Mexican food is a psychopath." — Jim Gaffigan

We live in polarized times, a nation divided. Red vs. Blue. Resisters vs. Trumpers. Fox News vs MSNBC. In an age of bitter division, is there anything that can unify this once-great nation?

I mean, besides Mexican food, of course?

Seriously, who doesn't have their head on a damned swivel when that hot fajita plate sizzles somewhere in their sensory ZIP code? As a people, we have made "Taco Tuesday" into what's practically a weekly national celebration. Oh, I'm exaggerating about the universal popularity of Mexican food? Ask yourself, honestly: Have you ever in your life turned down a nacho? I'll hang up and listen.

I'm firmly of the opinion that food brings people together, and that Mexican food brings people together quickly. Little Rock is home to a number of decent Mexican restaurants, and the downtown area just gained another one with the recent opening of Cantina Cinco de Mayo No. 3 (joining two other branches in Little Rock and one in Benton).

A dining partner and I ducked in for a quick lunch on a recent weekday. The place was packed and buzzing, decorated with colorful flags and murals, and the efficient staff had us seated with drink orders taken before we'd even settled in — a great thing for downtown workers with limited lunch breaks. Speed matters (even if it sometimes results in getting accidentally served water instead of tea).

Cantina Cinco De Mayo has an extensive (19 choices) lunch menu, each under $8. My lunch partner ordered the Chile Relleno and Enchilada plate ($6.99, served with rice and beans). She pronounced the relleno to be very tasty, but unfortunately was given a somewhat lackluster beef enchilada instead of the cheese enchilada she'd requested. We also ordered the Gizo Mexicano ($7.95) with diced steak, serrano, onions and tomatoes served with either corn or flour tortillas. The Gizo was hot, flavorful and filling.

We returned two days later for a Saturday dinner, accompanied by two young parents and their child. Cantina Cinco De Mayo has a full bar (happy hour 3 to 6 p.m. Monday through Thursday and all day Sunday) featuring 10 different margarita offerings. We opted for the house margarita ($4.75 for 12 ounces), and it was fairly standard. Of note: the margaritas also come in 24 ounces, 36 ounces and pitcher-sized servings, so plan accordingly. Our table also ordered what turned out to be a somewhat ordinary queso and a large bowl of fresh, tasty guacamole that appeared to have been made to order.

Cantina Cinco De Mayo has a lengthy list of entrees, even by the standards of Mexican restaurants. Diners will enjoy selecting from multiple varieties of burritos, quesadillas, enchilada plates, vegetarian options, seafood dishes, taco offerings and specialty meals. Our table spent a fair amount of time exploring options before ordering a manageable sampling.

The entrees arrived soon after, and the undisputed belle of this particular ball was the Molcajete Special ($14.49 with chicken or steak, $16.99 with shrimp). The Molcajete, served in a visibly steaming stone bowl, is a savory pile of grilled steak sauteed with onions and tomatoes, poblano peppers, ranchero chipotle sauce, topped with Chihuahua cheese and garnished with cambry onions and cactus leaves. If that sounds like a lot, it was — and it came with tortillas and beans. Our table enjoyed this dish very much and ended up with leftovers.

Another highlight of dinner was the Shrimp Al Mojo De Ajo ($11.95). This entree was a generous serving of buttery, garlicky shrimp, accompanied by particularly good and fluffy rice, lettuce, tomatoes, onions and guacamole. Our youngest tablemate quickly abandoned her Kids Burrito ($4.99) in favor of sharing shrimp and rice with her seatmate.

The remaining entrees included an ordinary, but good, beef fajitas offering ($11.49) and the Burrito Manuel ($9.49). The latter was filled with chicken, chorizo and — surprise — sauteed pineapple. The sweetness of the pineapple served as a nice counter to the spiciness of the chorizo.

Despite slight but unconvincing protests, we investigated the dessert menu and shared two selections. The Churros Con Nieve ($4.25) was a serving of four standard-sized and delicious cinnamon churros suspended in a goblet of vanilla ice cream and drizzled with chocolate sauce. Also making an appearance: the Chocolate Chimichangas ($3.95), four delicate tortillas filled with melted chocolate, also drizzled with chocolate, and served with ice cream. Our biggest complaint, if one can call it a complaint, was that the chocolate was almost certainly Hershey's instead of a more authentically Mexican choice. The dessert menu was rounded out nicely by cheesecake, sopaipillas, flan and fried ice cream options.

In sum: Cantina Cinco De Mayo is a solid choice for those seeking a long and varied list of menu options, quick service, frequent happy hours and a few surprisingly good options that aren't standard fare. Give them a try if you're hungry or just seeking desperately to find something that will unite your family's own warring factions.

Cantina Cinco De Mayo No. 3
521 Center St.
400-8194

Quick bite

Fast service, full bar, happy hour every day except Friday — including all day on Sunday.

Hours

11 a.m. until 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. until 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 11 a.m. until 9 p.m. Sunday.

Other info

Full bar.


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