On a rainy night in Williamsburg, I opened the unassuming door, only to stare at a red velvet curtain. I pulled the curtains to the side and was greeted with an ornate dining room in the shape of a large square. A complete tequila bar was in the foreground and the queen of the room was a massive chandelier hovering above my head. Later, I would learn that this chandelier had once belonged to Chef / Owner Julio Mora’s grandmother in Mexico. The logistics of shipping such a massive piece were unfathomable, but Mora had somehow done it. Its extravagance adds to the decor of a room that spares no design detail in achieving the authentic feel of Mexican culture. And as I got to know the man behind Cantina Royal, I understood how being deliberate is what makes him the salsa master of New York (among other things).
You see… “try all the salsas” was likely the best piece of advice a friend gave me coming into this dinner. Never have I experienced such craftwork and varying flavours of salsa. The crown jewel was the “Tamaulipeca,” made with chile pequin, tamarindo and fish stock. Fish stock in a salsa?! It totally works and is can’t miss stuff. The spread featured salsas with pistachio, cinnamon and a wide array of chiles, some of which were “marinaded in lemon, lime and spices for 2 months” according to Mora. The flavours are as complex as they sound, but the salsas are merely a delicious appetizer for the main event.
The chicken risotto, which boasted a distinct flavour of cotija cheese, just screams fine Mexican fare. The Califa steak taco was reminiscent of the classic quesadilla Suiza from San Francisco favourite taqueria El Farolito. Comfortable in its simplicity because it can be (see why in the photo below). Smooth chorizo tostadas that were perfectly smoky. But not as perfectly smoky as the Mexican BBQ pork ribs in a Hennessy BBQ sauce served with smoked rice and the most exquisite smoked cheese. The ribs pulled right off the bone and the flavours of the ribs, rice and cheese together were out of this world.
Every detail was carefully crafted. I have a friend who says “The best barometer for how good a Mexican restaurant is, is the rice and beans.” It’s a statement that speaks to being excellent while not trying too hard and it accurately describes what Cantina Royal is. “I want it to feel like it’s a secret spot,” says Mora. “You walk through the curtains and boom!” And it still feels like Williamsburg. It’s a cool spot to be at, the margaritas taste like they should (deliciously balanced and not too sweet) and it’s a slice of true Mexican food culture. Do yourself a favour and go visit the Salsa Master… if you can find him. Orale!
*Cantina Royal is located at 58 North 3rd Street in Williamsburg off of Kent. It is open from Monday to Sunday from 3 PM to midnight. The restaurant also offers cooking classes, catering, coupons, a calendar of events and a music event space in the back room called LA SALSA!