I once visited a restaurant seven times during the review process.
That was atypical. We always dine at a restaurant at least twice, but generally average three visits. Not seven. The driving force here was expectation.
This was the second restaurant opened by a known Atlanta chef. At the new spot, I expected a certain level of execution based on past experience dining at his first restaurant. I didn’t find it.
A jumble of possible explanations presented themselves. Perhaps the chef was away that night (and the next, and the next). Maybe I ordered the wrong items. Could lunch possibly be better?
At long last, I accepted that I wasn’t going to find what I expected. Now I hope, I don’t expect.
So when I visited the new Mavericks Cantina in Johns Creek, I hoped to experience the same precision and wit found in the cooking at chef Nicholas St. Clair’s original restaurant Antebellum in Flowery Branch, just through a So-Cal-Mexican lens.
In contrast to the average corner Mexican joint, Mavericks Cantina presents a lighter take on Mexican. The menu may not be as creative and forward-thinking as I’d hoped, but that’s not really the point here. This is a solid neighborhood hangout with a familiar and approachable menu just perfect for the area. Fresh fish and steak tacos await, as do cocktails and your Johns Creek neighbors.
The decor is as refreshing as the fare. The long wall bears a powdery orange-sherbet-colored ombre design while another is constructed of repurposed wood pallets. A 10-foot driftwood log, collected from the Gulf shores by the owners, has been converted into a light fixture. It’s now suspended over the high-top communal table, a striking focal piece and anchor for drop-bulb lighting.
The likes of the Beach Boys, the Beatles and ABBA waft through the inviting space as boomers and young families alike sip pomegranate margaritas, palomas and riptides, a coconut rum-pineapple-grapefruit medley. Enthusiastic servers only contribute to the convivial atmosphere.
The best expression of what I hoped to get from St. Clair came in the form of a salad. Like a well-composed painting, vibrant greens and yellows dominated the visual landscape while creamy avocado, sweet pineapple, crunchy jicama sticks and a tart charred-lime vinaigrette commanded the gustatory one.
The chicken-popcorn soup was also fun. A take on chicken-tortilla soup, St. Clair’s rendition was filled with large sections of pulled chicken and a thin broth with great depth. The popcorn came on the side and added a complementary note of corn, even if its crunch nearly disintegrated upon contact with the liquid.
We also get a Southern spin on soft tacos with the fried chicken. Aggressively seasoned, dark-meat popcorn-chicken bites loaded with vinegary Alabama white barbecue sauce and sweet chow chow spill from warm tortillas. Finger — er, arm — licking good.
Other tacos like the steak or the grouper with pineapple, pickled jalapenos and a delightful lime crema pair well with the margaritas and friendly conversation.
Mavericks Cantina is not a choose-your-numbered-combo kind of place, but, as with most Mexican, you will see ingredients repeated and rematched to form new dishes. That lime crema makes several appearances, as do the salsa verde, pickled red onions, and the brisket.
The braised brisket comes on tacos, enchiladas and tortas. Go for the brisket. We had ours made on white corn tortillas (flour tortillas are standard) and gobbled them quickly as the wraps yielded to the moist beef mixed with salsa verde, lime crema and pickled red onions. And I’d do it all over again.
I wouldn’t, however, select the pork belly torta again. As much of a sucker as I am for a good belly o’ pork, this one didn’t do it for me. The few pickled red onions and dry ciabatta did little to counter (or lighten!) the layering of fatty belly, thick chipotle mayonnaise, avocado slices and a fried egg. Too much.
Mavericks Cantina also offers churros, another weakness of mine. Though a little tough and extra greasy, the sugared sticks paired with the spiced Mexican chocolate are a crowd-pleaser. Also consider the sweet potato wedges, crusted in brown sugar, cinnamon and cayenne. Technically they aren’t a dessert, but in my book, they are so sweet they qualify.
Mavericks Cantina makes for the ideal neighborhood taqueria. And perhaps for those of us seeking a little more playfulness in our food, Mavericks will run the occasional out-of-the-box special. I don’t expect it, but one can hope.
–by Jenny Turknett, Atlanta Restaurant Scene blog