Tacos are everywhere these days. They provide the basis for many new concepts, and some riff on the idea is likely to end up on almost any type of menu, regardless of how it relates to Mexican cuisine.
What I didn’t see though was anything like the suadero tacos at La Tia Cantina until they were presented with a plate during a weekday lunch.
The filling, saudero, is brisket with a rich flavor and a smooth, melty texture that evokes long, slow cooking. Slices of it were encased in a puffy layer of golden melted cheese stuck to corn tortillas with pickled radishes for crunch and precise dots of avocado cream.
With deep flavor and precise composition, suadero tacos made a fitting introduction to a new restaurant that goes far beyond the familiar basics, one that can open your eyes to the wealth of regional variety encompassed in Mexican cuisine.
The same lunch brought shrimp aguachile, a ceviche-like concoction that leaves the mostly raw seafood in a bath of citrus and chili peppers, crisp with pulsating freshness and flavor and the undulating bite of the ‘Red onion. It’s a dish that requires a certain confidence to order, and a lot of confidence for a new restaurant to serve a clientele not necessarily versed in its pleasures.
But that’s what makes La Tia so compelling.
This Metairie restaurant was opened in July by Leo Vazquez and Luis Nava, a couple in their thirties who share Mexican heritage and previous careers in local restaurants. Vazquez’s family is originally from Mexico City; Nava is from Colima on the Pacific coast. They wanted to bring a more traditional image of Mexican cuisine to the table, drawn with a contemporary hand.
The result is both revealing and accessible. You can come here for tacos and tequila, and you can also try dishes that might become your next obsession.
Carnitas are made into something like Mexican dim sum, with chunks of pork folded into dumpling wrappers fried on a multi-dimensional mole. Rockfish is a thick, substantial cut with a rusty, earthy red coating that tastes very much like barbecue sauce after being baked.
They release more promotions over the seasons. Earlier this fall, it was chili en nagoda, or beef-stuffed peppers with nut cream sauce. More recently, they prepared a short rib of beef, a Brontosaurus-sized portion with a crispy, salty exterior, yielding strands of meat underneath to slide through a surrounding moat of a smoky tomato and chili sauce. .
La Tia is where I discovered chamorro, the Mexican version of osso buco. The pork easily shreds into large, tender chunks from the big shank bone, falling into a base of creamy refried beans surrounded by fried steak-style potatoes. It is ignited by a sauce made from cooking juices, poured at the table in a small kettle.
It’s the kind of rustic dish I can imagine eating in a canteen that serves beer and chamorro and maybe nothing else. At La Tia you get it on a busy side street in Metairie from a menu full of such finds.
Restaurants like this really feel like they can connect you with the culture behind a kitchen, and it goes beyond the plate.
Vazquez and Nava are passionate about their food, just like the other people who work here. The service staff are ardent ambassadors of what the kitchen produces and their enthusiasm is downright appetizing.
This extends to the incredibly sophisticated bar at La Tia, already in the running for one of the best cocktail bars in Metairie. Bartender Ulysses Campos offers an evolving list of original cocktails drawing from a deep well of Mexican ingredients. They take their name from La Loteria, the Mexican card game, and many of them practically glow with colorful vibrancy.
Mezcal and chilli liqueur mingle behind the purple body with hibiscus tints of a so-called el corazon; another, still awaiting an official name, begins with Nixta Mexican Corn Gin and Liqueur, which brings its own unique punch behind the drink’s creamy, smooth texture.
It’s a peculiar address, but its geometric shape and high, soaring roofline have seen many restaurants come and go. La Tia is fairly young, but the reception here is encouraging, with dinner parties proving particularly busy as families fill the large tables and couples and solo diners take their places at the bar.
Details are worked into every corner with Mexican lucha libre wrestler figurines, Day of the Dead symbols, and folk and pop art pieces creating a colorful collage around the place.
There’s a soulful feel here that belies just how recently La Tia has opened. It feels like you’re in a restaurant that’s been around for way more than a few months. But then, bringing deep flavors to the fore with a distinctive style is a proven path.
The Tia Cantina
4517 Esplanade Avenue West, Metairie, (504) 354-8570
Lunch and dinner every day, Sat. and Sun brunch.
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