When the first Urban Cantina opened in downtown Tampa in 2010 there was a dearth of affordable Mexican in that part of town, and the newcomer seemed like a potential boon to downtown workers and those prowling around town later in the evening.
I wasn't impressed on my first visit. None of the food was distinguished, just basic Tex and Baja Mex standards executed without a lot of imagination. And the decor was weird, cold and industrial.
So I didn't review it, figuring it would soon succumb in that fairly competitive market. Well, owner Chris Rivas, a restaurant rookie, stuck with it. He refined things, he tweaked the decor. And now he has opened a second restaurant on S Howard Avenue in one of those locations that has been a revolving door over the years (Infusions Tea, Hooker Tea Company, Bric, Strings n Rings).
In previous incarnations there were two glaring problems: Zoning precluded late-night hours, and parking was limited. The parking is still tricky, especially given that a hookah lounge is moving in next door and will be sharing the lot. But Rivas has a license to serve until 1 a.m. — an ideal hour for luring revelers farther north on S Howard from MacDinton's and all that beer.
What's the lure? Tacos. Very competent, on handmade soft corn tortillas without an overload of toppers beyond the requested protein (or veggies, but warning: there's broccoli in there!). Pico de gallo, shredded cabbage, a swirl of sour cream or a dab of queso fresco, those kinds of things. It's two tacos for $7.49 (for two of the same kind), three for $9.99, served with Mexican rice and very demurely flavored refried beans.
In general, I'd say "demure" is an accurate flavor descriptor. I'd like some more fire across the board, although they do have a hotter salsa if you ask for some heat. The chipotle chicken "tinga" was the most bland of the meats we sampled, the carnitas the most flavorful. Battered shrimp and fish are both nicely done, greaseless and crispy, but again, I'd like a big squeeze of lime, a flurry of white onion or something spicy to compete with the best Baja fish tacos.
Branching out from tacos in the intimate, lucha libre themed dining room (lots of Mexican wrestler masks), you'll find nachos ($7.99) under an avalanche of white queso, beans, guacamole (solid, but not exceptional), chicken and pico de gallo. It's a triple-napkin shared appetizer, a napkin tally matched only by the XXL Gordito Burrito Mojado ($9.99), dachshund-sized and packed with rice, beans, onions, peppers and your choice of protein.
Because Urban Cantina has only a beer and wine license, margaritas are agave wine only, but fairly plucky nonetheless. Sangria was a little Hawaiian Punch-ish, and the wine and beer selections aren't going to raise any goose bumps.
What Rivas and his friendly young staff have managed to do, though, is to provide another place to nosh after a long SoHo night. Yes, the Lime is doing similar food several blocks away at a similar price point, but when you've got your going-out pumps on, close tacos are good tacos. With his downtown location, Rivas has proven he's able to tinker with details to stay competitive. On S Howard the competition may be even fiercer — but with the high-flying masked luchador as mascot, maybe Urban Cantina is just tough enough.
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses.