© September 13, 2010
By Judy Cowling
We took a chance on a recent steamy Friday night and braved Oceanfront traffic to sample a new hot spot called Side Street Cantina in the 200 block of 11th Street. Bumper-to-bumper cars, lots of pedestrians and plenty of peddlers made for anxious driving. But 10 minutes of bother were a small price to pay for the fresh and friendly fare we found.
The place was a bustling mixture of all ages and sizes, from large families with babies to tables of giggling young women and guys in T-shirts and fedoras. One thing they had in common... everyone was happy and wore flip-flops. Business partners Dennis Del-Castillo and Willie Vega opened Side Street in January, in a tough economy. They envisioned Mexican with a twist and created a West Coast-style taco shack with Peruvian influences.
We started with a small Side Street Rita ($6.50), a tasty sipper made from a basic concentrate with added orange, lime and pineapple juices, triple sec and Cuervo Gold Tequila. A basket of warm chips and sauces was quickly brought to the table. We added an order of Mango Sea Dip ($7.50), a delicious bowl of summer-fresh cubed mango and avocado, grilled shrimp, garlic, red pepper, jalapeno, vinegar and pico de gallo. We devoured it along with the tingly-tangy ceviche ($12) - fresh raw fish marinated in citrus juices and spiced with peppers. Their version consists of seasonal fish - flounder in the summer, rockfish in the winter - with calamari and shrimp. They marinate with lime juice and season with fresh garlic, aji amarillo (a sweet Peruvian yellow pepper) and Japanese salt, and garnish with a lettuce wrap and sweet potato medallion.
The Chicken Tortilla Soup ($7.75), made from pulled chicken, rice and veggies and garnished with fresh fried tortilla strips, was bland and served lukewarm, but the ripe hunks of avocado saved it. The Pork Carnitas ($13) are slow-cooked daily in a big pot. When ordered, hunks are scooped out and reheated in a saute pan. The smaller hunks were overcooked while the larger ones were moist and tender, but the flavor was rich and satisfying. The fish tacos ($2.75 each) provided generous servings of grilled flounder seasoned with red pepper and salt and served with chopped cabbage, pico de gallo, homemade tartar and a side of rice and beans with lime wedges.
The flan ($5.50) was forgettable, but save room for the homemade churros ($5.50), cigar-sized, crunchy deep-fried treats dipped in cinnamon sugar, drizzled with chocolate and served with a dollop of Cool Whip.
Feeling he-man hungry? Try the Side Street Cantina Burrito Challenge. Forty bucks scores a 9-pound behemoth steak burrito. Eat it all and it's free. "We keep the prices reasonable, the food fresh. You come once and we remember you," said Del-Castillo. "We are extremely grateful for the continued year-round patronage of the locals. As long as they keep coming, we'll keep adding bike racks."