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Cantina Mexicana, Owner Gloria Arias' Tex-Mex - Crystal City Location Has Closed, Still Open at Walter Reed Drive and Columbia Pike in South Arlington

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Former denizens of backwater Texas towns, like me, search for the comforting grease, spice and meatiness of Tex Mex all over town, only to be confronted by tribes of well-meaning El Savadorian families claiming to be Tex Mex. But, no. They try to somehow bend the food of their home country into something that they think might be more palatable for their american audiences. They churn out tamales, carne asada, fish and white rice like crazy, and it's all pretty good.

Guajillo, Taqueria National, los Tipos - I hate them. I do. I hate them because they claim to have Tex Mex food. They taunt me with visions of rat trap cheese, tamales without the abhorrent little bits of vegetables stuck in the masa, refried beans the texture of putty, big greasy chimichangas, and a certain exoticness without threat that is reminiscent of Old El Paso products and the Patio burrito, if only it were good.

Tex Mex is about Ro-Tel tomatoes, chili powder, pinto beans, and always garnished with a slice of bell pepper. It does not challenge - it is the all-inclusive family resort of ethnic food. It is not threatening, it is tacos, enchiladas, chalupas, and the rare chile relleno. It comforts, its says 'Buenas Dias, y'all'

Oh my darlings. I have found the sole outpost of the TexMex family in Restaurant Row. It is not for those of you who crave the authentic experience of other people, but it is soulful, caring, and soothing. It also has margaritas the size of your head - a $10 margarita at La Cantina will come out in a glass the size of a cookie tin, more booze than mix, and nicely salted. It does not care about fresh lime juice or fancy salt - its is all mix out of a bottle. But it is a good quality mix from somewhere, the bartender is kind, and they will call you a cab if you drink too many.

Like the TexMex of my youth, they cultivate excess at a bargain price. For $11, I got the Special Combination, which came with a beef taco (greasy, crispy shell, spiced ground beef, cheese, chopped iceberg lettuce and tomato on the top), a tamale (stuffed with shredded beef and not a single damn vegetable in sight), two cheese enchiladas (a good red enchilada sauce, filled with some kind of delicious, yet synthetic cheese), and the ubiquitous bean s and spanish rice (a nice shade of orange. and topped with a slice of bell pepper. As it should be.) Mr. Beezy ordered a chicken chimichanga, lightly fried, and stuffed with a nice quality of chicken.

Other tables had fajitas with great big shrimp the size of my thumb (I have great big mitts), with a good ration of meat to vegetable. They even have the not tex-mex option of fried yucca, crispy, light and served with a great slaw and juicy yet crispy fried pork.

This is Mexican food that does not care for being authentic food that any self-respecting Mexican would actually eat. This is the cuisine that Bubba heads out to eat on Friday night with a cervezo, letting out a polite burp and sigh of satisfaction before hitching up his belt and waddling out to the car. This is where you can drink margaritas and eat nachos with the girls during happy hour until you are tipsy, without anyone judging or implying that you should be at the gym. It is so greasy and creamy and only mildly spiced, and I love it so. I hope you do too.

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On Saturday my wife and I had planned on going to pizziolo for lunch, but as we walked to the door we noticed a children's birthday party taking place and while there were empty tables knew that it was going to be a little too raucous for our moods. So we went two doors down to La Cantina. The staff was quite friendly and quite responsive.

As for the food, La Cantina does not try to be anything more than what Beezy described, but they excel where other fail. The chicken in my sour cream enchilada was moist and flavorful, the sauces were nothing too heady but they played well. The Tacos El Carbon was filled with flavorful meat with just the right amount of chew. Both dishes that we tried were served with the customary rice and beans, however these were of better quality than what other local Tex-Mex joints in the area serve.

For Mexican I will always choose Guajillo, but down and dirty Tex-Mex La Cantina has risen to the top.

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Color me suggestible. We went to La Cantina tonight, and enjoyed it very much. The chips are thick and crispy, the salsas had good flavor and some decent heat to them, and the green one was so yummy that I spread the whole little bowl of it over my veggie enchiladas, which were really good. The vegetables were very fresh, flavorful, and cooked to a nice texture. Mr. lperry got the chipotle chicken and loved it - tender and cooked perfectly (he has issues with restaurants undercooking chicken) with a delicious sauce that had just the right amount of heat. The sides of rice and beans, as mentioned above, are just better than what you find at other restaurants. Nothing was too greasy, or too salty, or swimming in too much cheese. It was just good Tex-Mex. Thanks for the recommendation!

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Cantina Mexicana on 23rd Street is now closed. A sign in the window thanks everyone for 40 years of business and encourages patrons to come to their location on Columbia Pike. That strip is looking worse and worse. It's such a wasted opportunity, and I really wish there were good restaurant options within walking distance.

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5 hours ago, DCA said:

Cantina Mexicana on 23rd Street is now closed. A sign in the window thanks everyone for 40 years of business and encourages patrons to come to their location on Columbia Pike. That strip is looking worse and worse. It's such a wasted opportunity, and I really wish there were good restaurant options within walking distance.

Forty years? They opened there in 1978?! 

Well, I guess this doesn't technically qualify as an "Oldest Restaurant" by our standards (new owner plus a name change), but it's still to be honored.

Screenshot 2017-12-07 at 03.34.44.png

I've been to the location on Walter Reed Dr. - I wish I could recommend it, but I just can't; that doesn't mean I don't respect Ms. Arias and all she has done.

If anyone from Cantina Mexicana Too sees this, please chime in and let us know what to order.

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9 hours ago, DCA said:

Cantina Mexicana on 23rd Street is now closed. A sign in the window thanks everyone for 40 years of business and encourages patrons to come to their location on Columbia Pike. That strip is looking worse and worse. It's such a wasted opportunity, and I really wish there were good restaurant options within walking distance.

There are SO MANY bad restaurants on 23rd Street. When I first moved near there, I was excited to see a row of ethnic restaurants and bar/grills, but they are shoddy. Wonder why not one is any good. The only decent thing in the area is Kabob Palace, but that's not really on the strip. 

Cantina was what it was. Average suburban Tex Mex. I'm sure some people will miss it. Margaritas were aight. 

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Cantina (then Taco House) was the first restaurant we brought our infant daughter to, so we always felt a little sentimental about it. The staff cooed over her and were so kind. But we stopped going there a long time ago -- not consciously, it just fell off our radar, and we found ourselves going to Del Ray more often. 

The pity is that about 10 years ago there seemed to be some hope for 23rd Street as a few new restaurants opened up. But none of them lasted (I still feel a twinge of jealousy when I see Cafe Pizzaiolo in Alexandria). Enjera restaurant is the one place we'll still go to and not feel like it's just a decision made out of desperation. Now the strip has a pawn shop where Pizzaiolo used to be, Smokey Shope up the street, and two hookah bars. (How many hookah bars does one block need?)

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