Cantina 1838, new taqueria in the heart of Harlem, boasts a killer happy hour.
New York City is a rather expensive place to live—often brutally so. Usually, when it comes to matters of time and money, you feel squarely at odds with the City, locked in a losing battle. Almost invariably, the City ‘wins’. Opportunities to not get screwed are rare; times you get the best of the City, even more so.
Striding down Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard a few nights ago, my wife and I, along with a close friend, had the uncommon experience of scoring a point against the City. We entered the recently-opened Cantina restaurant minutes before seven that evening—just before the end of Happy Hour.
Happy hour itself is a wonderful invention, especially if you’ve worked as a teacher and have been trained to drink before sundown. But it’s even better to happen upon one just before it ends. You get to eat at something resembling dinnertime, and your first drink or appetizer is magically cheaper.
Cantina’s happy hour stands up to any in the City. Tacos are $2 – choose from fish, beef, chicken and seared tuna – and their house margaritas cost only $4. Indeed, we would like a couple of each.
The chef comes from the original Dos Toros (think craft Chipotle – better, and cheaper). Each additional location after the Union Square birthplace has given the team a little more space to play with. The new WV outpost is practically palatial compared to the original spot, which comfortably seats one family of six or four strapping NYU freshmen – but not both. Cantina provides the chef with far more room to play with.
Alongside the margaritas quickly came complimentary chips and salsa and a platter of the fish tacos we’d ordered (the seared tuna taco was unavailable the night we visited). At $2 per, we expected a few small bites hidden inside a softened tortilla chip, so we were ecstatic to find we’d been served legitimate eats instead. Hearty portions of lightly-fried fish hid under a pile of guacamole, veggies, and a savory sauce (a little heavy on the sauce for my wife’s liking). On a return visit, we confirmed the guacamole pile was just as good on its own, as an appetizer alongside the salsa.
Our other favorite happy hour spot, Mermaid Inn Uptown, serves a tasty yet infinitesimal fish taco. Usually I end up taking at least a small bite out of my thumb as well. Covered in their Old Bay tartar sauce and delicate baby cilantro sprigs, even I taste halfway decent. All that to say – Cantina puts the portions to shame and packs a similarly flavorful punch. Mermaid Inn still wins on food variety and a more refined ambiance, but drinks and a delicious meal for $16? And right at home in Harlem? Shoot.
We were having such a good time (and for less than the cost of delivery), that we decided to stay post-happy hour specials and try some shrimp tacos as well. Quite good too, but the fish wins in that comparison. The dinner menu has more options, but manages to restrict sampling more than happy hour.
Different types of tacos cannot be ordered individually, but come in twos (“appetizer”) or threes (“entrée”, includes sides). Prices run from $8-13 for two, with your basic tacos on the low end and lobster providing the higher price-point. Entrée orders start at $12 and include staple side options like refried beans and cilantro rice. There is a “platter” for $28, which features eight tacos chosen from the regular menu. Going to a taco-first establishment is a great excuse to try a wealth of different flavors at relatively low cost, so bring some friends and sample away.