When the COVID-19 pandemic shut down Durango’s restaurants in the spring, Cantera was one of its casualties, never to open its doors again. The restaurant wasn’t dead, however. It was simply entering a period of metamorphosis.
Like a cecropia moth caterpillar (look it up, they start rather fancy) becoming its final form, Cantera sealed itself away for a period of time and returned as something else. In this case, what used to be a Mexican fine dining restaurant transformed into Taco Libre, a taqueria specializing in Mexican street food.
“Wait a minute,” you might be asking, “isn’t the street food equivalent of Cantera something like Macho’s (which local restaurateur Beto Navarro also owns)?”
Not quite. While Macho’s is fast food, Taco Libre Taqueria and Cocktails is a casual-dining, counter-service experience. Think Nini’s Taqueria or Switchback Taco Bar. You order your food and drinks at a counter and either take it to go or sit down and it gets delivered to you — on the back patio if, like us, you head there during Level Red restrictions.
The food menu has over a dozen items on it, not including deserts and the like and while items like the gorditas and pozolé called to us, we decided to keep it simple for our first time at the eatery. As a result, we ended up ordering a few tacos al pastor and some Lucha Fries with barbacoa.
Our personal experience with Cantera was more in its role as a cocktail bar, but it was also the place where we ate one of the three best steaks we’ve had in Durango. This sprang to mind as we bit into one of our tacos — “Oh, yeah … these guys know a thing or two about seasoning meat.”
The tacos were otherwise fantastic, with very fresh-tasting cilantro, onion, and guacamole perfectly proportioned over corn tortillas that you could consume in two or three bites. They were spicy in the flavorful sense but were not muy picante in and of themselves. The tacos came with some tiny cups of tomatillo salsa, though, and these brought it up to a medium level of heat — and added a delightful smoky flavor that we weren’t necessarily expecting.
The Lucha Fries were also kind of amazing for what they are — which is basically the fanciest version of chili cheese fries we can imagine. They consisted of curly fries topped with queso, pico de gallo, guacamole, bacon cream sauce, jalapeño slices, and cotija cheese. They were pretty delicious, especially as the more liquid toppings combined with the juices of the barbacoa beef.
While we were there, we had to get a couple of cocktails. After all, Roberto Delgado, the mixologist who made Cantera such a great cocktail bar, also came up with the drink menu for the new restaurant.
Comic book nerds that we are, two beverages immediately lept out at us: Shocker and Mephisto, both Marvel Comics supervillains. Naturally, we ordered those.
We drank the Shocker first, mostly because it seemed like a simpler drink. Its ingredients included roasted pineapple, ginger, El Charro Reposado Tequila, lime juice, agave nectar, Averna, cardamom, and celery bitters.
The roasted pineapple was very much the primary flavor in the citric beverage, with a slightly charred (in a good way) fruity taste, backed up by the agave nectar, tequila, and ginger. The other ingredients were much more subtle, but still detectable, rounding out a delightful tropical cocktail — completely unlike the Spider-man adversary with which it shares a name.
The Mephisto we liked even more. Grapefruit, raspberry, Xicaru Mezcal, aloe liqueur, lime juice, red wine syrup, Burlesque Bitters, chia seeds, orange zest, and dry lemon, it was much more of an herbal drink.
The flavor that initially hits your tongue as you sip it is slightly fruity and slightly smoky, consisting of raspberry, grapefruit, aloe liqueur, and the mezcal. The other ingredients follow behind it, bringing with them a more herbal, vaguely wine-like flavor. The chia seeds were a nice aesthetic touch, floating like grains of black pepper atop the cocktail. It was more than worthy of the namesake of the demonic character that plagues the Silver Surfer, Ghost Rider, and Doctor Strange.
While we’ll certainly miss Cantera, we’re pleased with what it’s become, and look forward to dropping back in, especially when dining returns to normal.