Above the sleek, wooden bar in Cargo Cantina, next to the mighty jars of chilli, sits a stack of coloured plastic plates. They are the universal signifiers of functionality, of food eaten outside, with your hands - I’ve encountered them everywhere from family camping trips in Cornwall to the roadside restaurants in Vietnam. So they seem appropriate for a taqueria inspired by the street food stalls and tequila bars of Mexico.
When we visit, Cargo 1 and 2 (converted shipping containers) hum with the chatter of groups who gather on tables outside each restaurant, optimistically awaiting short spells of sunshine. Cantina’s tables are among the busiest. Its popularity is unsurprising, for whilst this restaurant is one of the newest openings here, its owners are well established in Bristol. Kieran and Imogen Waite run popular tapas bar Bravas and San Francisco-inspired cafe Bakers & Co, whose brunches have caught the attention of national press.
Like Bravas and Bakers, Cantina is a place of noise and energy. It’s a place where groups order rounds of margaritas and cervezas, cheerful staff bustle back and forth from kitchen to terrace and passers-by peer enviously at taco-laden tables. Its informality evidently appeals to all types of diners. On our left, a family give their young daughter her first taste of spicy food; on our right, a group of twenty-somethings celebrate a special occasion.
The atmosphere is all very well, but what’s the food like?
The food is as colourful as the plastic plates. The headline acts are the charcoal-coloured blue corn tortillas, with five lively toppings - we order them all. My favourites appeal for opposite reasons: one vibrant and fresh, one solid and earthy. On the first, morsels of monkfish, octopus and prawn dance beneath a bright dressing of peppers, tomato and onion. The other is piled with oyster mushrooms, potato, pumpkin seeds and sweet onion, which come alive with a dash of gutsy green tomatillo salsa.
The side dishes, too, make a strong case that opposites attract. There are bright, zingy offerings and deeper, richer flavours. Fresh corn is prevented from singing too sweetly by a backing choir of sharp lime and hot, green chilli; shredded cabbage shouts with mint, chilli and lime. Then there are creamy black beans that teeter on the verge of collapse, with a subtle smokiness that works well with a squeeze of (yet more) lime.
As you may be starting to surmise, the winning formula here is to magnify high-quality, organic produce through the lens of a few key ingredients: chilli, lime and herbs. These are the flavours of Mexican street-side dining, but refined to suit a more relaxed, restaurant experience. Cargo Cantina is lively, but it’s also somewhere you can linger over a meal; so sip on another (excellent) margarita, order a stack of tacos and settle in.
To find out about the other new openings at Cargo 2, head to some of my favourite fellow Bristol food blogs: