Cantina Loco, at the corner of Allen and Elmwood in Buffalo, is almost always packed, and for good reason. Its cuisine is more upscale than the typical fluorescent tortillas and ground beef taco spots that pepper the area, its extensive margarita and tequila list are both reliably tasty and generously portioned and its location is convenient to downtown, Allentown and Elmwood Village residents and guests.
Although the Mexican spot has had non-margarita cocktails for some time [read a review of the Cactus Berry], it expanded its list last week to include whimsically named cocktails such as the “Mad Hatter,” which we tried on a recent visit.
The Mad Hatter features Absolut hibiscus, blood orange, Prosecco and Crème Yvette. It arrives in a stemless martini glass instead of the joint’s signature cactus glasses, perhaps a testament to its strength. The Mad Hatter’s color reminded us more of the Cheshire Cat, a bright, effervescent pink with a floral, fruity flavor that would offset any of Cantina’s spicier fare with ease.
Crème Yvette, a liqueur made from Parma violets with blackberries, red raspberries, strawberries, cassis, honey, orange peel and vanilla, gives the Mad Hatter a rose-garden taste that is sophisticatedly sweet without tipping into sugary territory. The blood orange shines through with a deeper, more complex citrus than the more common lemon or lime juices, and the Prosecco adds a dry finish that whets the palate for another sip. This bubbly, floral concoction is an easier-drinking choice than the standard margarita, and may go down especially well with the Cosmo crowd, or anyone seeking a sweeter sip that is still refreshingly light.
With its new, broader cocktail offerings, Cantina Loco seems to be committing to its drinks program more diligently, although pitchers of margaritas never stopped flowing from behind the rail. Its cocktails are also available by the batch, for parties with similar taste who can’t be bothered to keep bellying up to the bar.
The new menu also offers a solid slate for those who are not tequila fans or people like a friend of mine, who has one taste and goes a little loco. While not at the level of, say, Jaguar at the Bistro’s complex and time-consuming margarita menu, Cantina Loco’s options are solidly satisfying as an accompaniment to a plate of tacos or all by themselves.
Mexican-American restaurants have long been known more for bottomless chips and salsa and strong, glow-in-the-dark margaritas, but Cantina Loco’s commitment to fresh ingredients, more authentic cuisine and now, a more sophisticated cocktail offering shows it is not resting on its laurels. As the field of offerings for local fare and quality drinks deepens, even successful spots like Cantina may be feeling the push toward a better product. Good for this Allentown standard for stepping up to the plate.
Mad Hatter, $9; Cantina Loco; 191 Allen St.; 551-0160
Lizz Schumer is the editor of The Sun, author of “Buffalo Steel” and writes about food and whimsy for a variety of publications. She can be found at lizzschumer.com, facebook.com/authorlizzschumer and @eschumer.