Cafe Reviewed: Wednesday, August 8, 2002
Mambo’s Tapas Cantina
House margarita on the rocks $6.00
Ceviche $8.95
Tacos Mariscos $9.95
Taco to Me, Baby

Mambo’s tapas bar makes big points with small dishes.


Mambo’s Tapas Cantina

1010 Houston (in the Park Central Hotel). 4-11pm Mon-Thur, 4pm-2am Fri. and Sat. AE, MC, V & D.

othing gets a social scientist salivating like a good pair of twins to study. One good, one bad. One fat as an Easter pig, the other skinny as an anorexic cover girl. Such diversity from common seed is the stuff that PhD’s are made of.

So maybe what’s needed is a scientific study to explain how the people who brought Fort Worth a pedestrian Mexican restaurant like Rio Mambo could come up with something that borders on southwestern brilliance like Mambo’s Tapas Cantina.

It’s an interesting concept — taking the small servings from a Spanish tapas bar and replacing them with exotic tacos and salsas. The owners say the menu is a work in progress, but everything my guest and I had worked fine.

If you’re in the mood for a gut-stretching Tex-Mex platter, you’ll be disappointed. This is a place for a cocktail and a snack — not that you can’t make a light meal from the menu. We ultimately departed sated but not stuffed — a pleasant if unusual way to end a meal that begins with salsa and chips.

We stopped by the cantina on an evening so hot only Beelzebub could have been comfortable outdoors, and immediately had good vibes. Cave-like and cool, the cantina is a welcome retreat from the hell of late summer. Diffuse light oozes through a custom-made window of blue-textured glass. The bar itself was a calming, curvaceous slab of creamy onyx lit from beneath. You could do some serious drinking and thinking perched atop a stool here.

Another good sign: Our English-speaking server mentioned that he was having trouble communicating with the Spanish-speaking and exceptionally gifted cook, who hails from Oaxaca. Nothing more dependably produces forgettable Mexican food than a kitchen where only gringo is spoken.

We settled into a corner spot, and the bartender delivered a Tecate for me and house margarita for my dinner date. The beer came in a tall, fluted glass, chilled just a few degrees shy of a headache. My date reported that her ’rita was more than acceptable: “It was big, not too sour, not too sweet.” Both were so good we later ordered seconds.

While the outside world continued to swelter, we sampled the ceviche, guacamole, and hongos fritos. Some guac is over processed, but this was ripe with fat chunks of avocado. And the ceviche, more traditionally served with just hints of tomato and pepper, came in a sweet tomato sauce — more of a fish cocktail, really, but very good nonetheless. Only the fried mushrooms we tried were a mistake — nothing you couldn’t find at half a dozen chains.

The menu features eight types of tacos, each paired with a recommended salsa. If you’re looking for ground beef, iceberg lettuce, and cheddar, downtown has a Taco Bell not far away. And you’re going to do without the traditional Mexican dinner plate companions — in keeping with the lighter fare of the tapas concept, Mambo’s Cantina sends the refrieds and rice packing. What you get are tacos solamente, three to a plate, and a side of salsa. Es todo.

We tried the tacos mariscos, shrimp and bay scallops in a chili garlic sauce with a light sprinkling of anejo cheese. And though neither of us usually digs pig, the tacos carnitas sounded too good to pass up — slow-cooked pork with salsa verde. The tastily seasoned meat was lean and pull-apart tender. A-pluses on all. The chili garlic sauce was particularly addictive: We begged an extra serving and spooned it away with chips.

Next time, we plan to check out the grilled portabello, poblano, and onion tacos with a pineapple and guajillo pepper salsa, or maybe the tacos rolandos, chicken in chili garlic with a smoky chipotle salsa.

Mambo’s Tapas Cantina is open only in the evenings. Rio Mambo takes over for lunch, reverting to the traditional Tex-Mex from the original location at 1-20 and Bryant Irvin. There’s also outdoor seating in a patio, which would be enticing in fall and spring but disastrous during the summer, unless you visited on an unseasonably cool day.

Fort Worth Weekly’s staff celebrated a staff member’s birthday on just such a day at the downtown Rio Mambo — a semi-rowdy party of 10 with strong opinions when it comes to Mexican food. The reviews of my colleagues were mixed — and more generous than my own.

One of my companions considered the rice and beans bland. Another pronounced the spinach and chicken enchiladas “good, not great” and light on the greens. The chips were deemed too thin for the salsa, and one basket arrived looking like it had been left over from another table. And the tortillas on one plate were soggy. Those who had grilled chicken, however, thought it tender and nicely seasoned. And the chunky tomato salsa won generally high praise for being fresh.

To my taste, the salsa served with Mambo’s chips at both locations was way too salty. And the entrées were so heavily lavished with cheese that the owners should offer angioplasty or cardiac defibrillation as a dessert. Lighten up, amigos.

Having dined at all three Mambo venues in recent weeks, I can offer unequivocal praise for the wait staff. Whether staffers were serving a party of 10 or two people alone in a bar, they were efficient, attentive, and knowledgeable about the menu. No one tried to befriend us. Never once was I tempted to reach for my revolver.

So here’s a closing tip: Skip both the Rio Mambo’s and spend your money at Mambo’s Tapas Cantina — maybe it’ll flourish. But you better do it soon. When the construction clutter from the convention center across the street clears and the owners start advertising, the Tapas Cantina is going to be packed floor to ceiling with touristas and yammering business yups. For now, you can have it all to yourself.

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