Good Mexico City Food Has a Home on the Eastside
There's still room for improvement, but so far we're enchanted with Licha's Cantina
Reviewed by Claudia Alarcón, Fri., May 23, 2014
The little cottage that formerly housed Papi Tino's is now home to a new venture from two local service industry veterans. Daniel O. Brooks, former general manager at Vespaio and Mettle, has partnered with Claude Benayoun, one of Vespaio's co-owners, to realize his dream of a comfortable cantina featuring Mexico City-style botanas. Although we think there's still room for improvement, so far we are enchanted with Licha's.
Most of the rustic Mexican theme of the former tenant has carried over, and there's a homey vibe that distinguishes Licha's from other establishments in the area – for instance, the staff is attentive and enthusiastic. The bar program, overseen personally by Brooks, features excellent libations, including staples like Palomas ($4); classics with a twist, like La Mula ($7), blending mezcal, ginger beer, fresh lime, and Jugo Maggi; and original cocktails like the refreshing El Zorro ($10), tequila infused with chile ancho and chipotle, fresh grapefruit juice, and sparkling Rosé.
The small menu is packed with inventive cuisine, a combination of street-food staples and popular cantina dishes, with a quality that shows from the first bite of chips and salsa. The enormous quesadillas ($10) come in blue corn tortillas – the closest to indigenous tortillas I've had in Austin – filled with asadero cheese accompanied by epazote, huitlacoche, or flor de Jamaica (sautéed hibiscus blossoms). We loved the sopes de lengua ($12), three fresh masa cups filled with braised tongue, fresh avocado salsa, and queso fresco, but were less enamored of the tlacoyo ($10). The shrimp mole topping was excellent, but the tlacoyo (traditional oval masa boat) was too big and thick, and therefore undercooked in the middle. Tacos ($14) come in individual cast-iron skillets, sizzling with toppings such as carne al pastor with pineapple slivers or roasted duck with orange supremes, accompanied by handmade tortillas (also inconsistent in thickness and doneness). From the cazuelitas ($12-$15) we recommend the exquisite pulpo con chorizo (octopus with sausage) and delicious cochinita pibil (pork with achiote and orange juice). If you have room for dessert, the traditional flan is an absolute winner.
Even though I'd suggest some adjustments to the fresh masa offerings, Licha's has become one of my favorite places to meet friends for dinner and drinks – and should be my go-to place to watch the upcoming World Cup.