The food's more canteen than cantina, but this is a great place tequila few hours drinking
I’ll tell you now, I’m frustrated. It’s always tough when you go somewhere and really enjoy the visit, but know deep down that the food’s just not quite up to scratch. I so want this to work. I adore real proper Mexican food; the likes of which I’ve never found anywhere east of the Rio Grande (and certainly nowhere in the UK) and I desperately wanted this to be it. But it’s just not. Not yet.
Sandinista was the intercontinental Jekyll and Hyde of Leeds bars – one side in Mexico sipping tequila, the other in Spain munching on tapas. Chida Cantina is the new incarnation of that dearly missed, slightly confused dive bar, and it’s pure Hyde, embracing all things Mexican and that special kind of madness that comes only from an agave-high. Breach the invisible hipster border-wall of the Belgrave, ignore the grey skies and ring road outside the window (best to just turn your back to it and face the bar) and let the dark wood interior and gently swirling ceiling fans convince you that you’re really in Cancun… especially after a few of their potent concoctions.
Forget shots of battery acid masked with salt and a dried-out lime wedge, Chida treats tequila with respect, serving cocktails without compromise that are designed to show off the spirit, rather than concealing it.
The Chida margarita is an excellent gateway; sour and salty like your skin after a night on the tiles. For a no bullshit approach, go for the Tommy’s variety – strong, short, and with a double-hit of agave from its pure syrup, rather than getting sweetness from orange liqueur. Be warned, they’re dangerously drinkable – but if you stick to just this all night you won’t have a hangover. No really, I’ve checked – extensively.
The only issue with their obsession with all things agave is that it pulls focus – both theirs and mine – away from the food.
The owner’s been to Mexico plenty of times. He knows what really great tacos taste like; I suspect that deep down, he must realise that these aren't great tacos; a work in progress, to be optimistic. The fact that they have a point of reference for what the food should be, hopefully means they’re working on getting there.
Fish tacos are my death row meal, that one final taste of paradise before heading to be fried in the electric chair - not to stick my head too far up my own arse, but generally they’re not as good as the ones I make at home, and these were no exception; mono-textured with not a crunch in sight despite the Baja being battered, lime cabbage giving not so much as a whisper of lime and instead a sort of acrid, medical taste that overpowered the fish, the guac - everything but the tequila in my marg.
Having persuaded my ardently carnivorous dining partner to give it a go, we were both stunned by the Coliflor – ever so slightly charred roast cauliflower on a bed of sweet potato, chilli and chipotle mayo – subtle fire and smoke with just enough bite from the cauliflower. Divine – and the best taco on the list.
All the other tacos were pleasant enough, but nothing to write home from Spring Break about, and none of them anything more than a sideshow to the booze. Their motto is nada complicado (nothing complicated) but the food could do with a being little more complicado - some flourishes of genius, a spark, more fire that could take this food to the next level.
It’s frustrating because the passion is there, and it’s close – just not quite close enough. If this is going to become the place to go in Leeds for real authentic Mexican food it needs to bplay up front alongside the drinks, not be the mascot dancing around in a novelty sombrero.
There are glimmers of hope - Queso Fundido is more than just the sum of its parts, gloriously rich melty cheese that’s Gael García Bernal-smooth. Spiked with just enough deep smoked paprika that it dances on the back of your tongue, I felt no shame eating the last bits with my finger when the tortilla chips had been devoured. The rest just feels hesitant, as if asking for permission. Well, have it: take all my encouragement and belief, and please turn this into the true authentic cantina it could be.
Still, go here for endless rounds of drinks, the excellent chat with the owner and the staff, and to lose yourself in the atmosphere transporting you to another place and time. That, and the cauliflower.
Chida Cantina fact file
Tommy’s Margarita - £8.5
Chida Margarita - £7.5
Chicharron - £3
Totopos - £3
Verdita Cured Salmon - £6
Chorizo and Queso Fundido - £4.5
Pescado Taco - £5.5
Chida Cheeseburger Taco - £6
Duck Carnitas Taco - £6
Colifor Taco - £4.5
Watermelon Gimlet - £8.5
Las Condes Carmenere 750ml - £17
Address: 5 Cross Belgrave St, Leeds LS2 8JP
Totopos 4.5, Chicharron 4, Verdita Cured Salmon 5.5, Queso Fundido 7, Pescado 4, Chida Cheeseburger 6, Duck Carnitas 5.5, Colifor 8.5
Made the whole experience – felt like the staff were genuinely having a laugh and are happy to chat about tequila for days.
Magic – just don’t look out the window.