The queso gave the first clue that Francisco’s Cantina was something special.
“I would drink this if it was socially acceptable,” said my friend, dipping in for the umpteenth time.
Francisco’s melted white cheese, creamy and studded with minced jalapeños, was worthy of many baskets of crunchy tortilla chips ($1.49 after the first), not to mention a fresh tomato salsa that was unusually good for the middle of December.
Francisco’s, which took over from La Mestiza this summer on East Main Street, is the kind of decent, inexpensive place that feels like a true find. That the tortas and tacos are solid will come as no surprise to fans of Taquería Guadalajara on Park Street, which is owned by the aunt of owner Francisco Gonzalez.
The menu is a blend of Americanized and traditional Mexican, with enchiladas and mole alongside fat burritos drizzled with verde sauce. The most basic dishes are some of the best, including well-stuffed tacos ($1.79-1.99) topped with onions and cilantro, and a chicken burrito Mexicano ($6.49), savory, wet and slightly spicy.
Gonzalez carefully calibrates the spice at Francisco’s, ranging from mild to fiery. Shrimp ceviche ($8.99) was piquant with lime, spicy with fresh chili and enormous, big as a generous bowl of soup. Tender shredded pork on huaraches al pastor ($6.49), a thick oblong tortilla, had a significant kick. Both were presented beautifully, the latter with drizzles of sour cream.
The striking display of Francisco’s surf-and-turf, steak costeño ($12.99), was borne out by juicy shrimp, medium rare beef and well-seasoned peppers and onions. Unfortunately, chewy, fatty carne asada ($8.99) disappointed, despite a topping of mildly spiced cactus.
Among the entrees, crispy little tacos dorados ($5.99) were a table favorite — late-night snackers will be more familiar with them as cheesy taquitos. Thick tamales ($1.99 each), topped with red and green sauces, were fresh and filling; enchiladas verdes ($6.49) drowned in sauce and toppings, but the tortillas stayed firm and the rice had good flavor.
That classic chocolate-chile Mexican sauce, mole, covered bits of chicken on mole poblano ($7.99), though it was a bit thin and less complex than the best we’ve had. Francisco’s could use more focus on details like browned, overly salty guacamole and one-note flan ($2.59) that offered little beyond the boxed version.
Still, Francisco’s margaritas ($3.99/glass, $12.99/pitcher) were sweet, smooth and deceptively strong.
“For the price, there’s no better value,” said one friend as we polished off the last of the pitcher.
Looking at the destruction of the plates on the table — empty queso, steak remnants, enchiladas gone — I was inclined to agree.