Cantina gets busy on the wharf
Location is primo, food is catching up
Make way for the pig!
Stretched out as if for dissection, lacquered skin shining, it’s being maneuvered through the throng at Temazcal Tequila Cantina, one of Boston’s many new upscale Mexican restaurants. Opened on the South Boston waterfront in April, Temazcal is part of the Liberty Wharf development, which draws hordes of tourists, office workers, dudes in baseball caps, and women in short dresses and tall heels on a daily basis. Crowded, frenetic, Liberty Wharf is a huge success, and my own personal nightmare. I am in the minority. If you want to feel what it’s like to run with the bulls, or participate in a protest in Tahrir Square, this may be as close as you’ll come in the Boston area.
Temazcal is a beautiful space, with a small dining room and a larger bar and lounge area. There are walls lined with candles, warm wood accents, and oversize lanterns and chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. Then there is the view - the main attraction. Glass doors along one side of the restaurant retract, opening to a deck that overlooks the harbor. It is gorgeous. So on a Thursday evening, Temazcal is cheek by jowl. (Fitting that it’s named for a traditional Mexican sweat lodge.) This makes progress difficult for a roast pig destined to be carved tableside. Its bier inches through the masses. A woman turns and sneezes violently in its direction. Looks like I’ll be skipping the pig.
If I get to eat at all, that is. “The wait is three hours,’’ the hostess says, and she can’t promise we’ll get a table before the kitchen closes. She tells us to come back in an hour for a light-up buzzer. Temazcal is too loud for cellphone communication. Maybe that’s why it doesn’t take reservations. Fortunately, I have visited enough times to know that the restaurant is located on a fault line in the space-time continuum. The hostess always says there’s a three-hour wait, and it generally takes less than an hour.
Temazcal’s chef is Todd Hall, whom the Globe profiled in June. He emerged as a culinary talent in Arizona in the ’90s, winning recognition from the James Beard foundation. Early success was followed by personal tragedy, addiction, and recovery, about which he is very open. He is open about everything else, too. Chefs have many ways of interacting with reviewers on the phone or in e-mail - some are friendly, some aloof; some ask directly how you like their food, others play it cool. Not many regularly e-mail to offer unvarnished comment on everything from the local dining scene to the challenges of running a restaurant. Hall does.
Thus, I can say he would be the first to admit the food at Temazcal is a work in progress, because he has.
An early visit produces a meal memorable for its insipidity. A dish of barbacoa is so tasteless and tough the person who ordered the braised short rib begins referring to it as “barfacoa.’’ The lechon asado, or roast pork, looks as dull as the whole pig it’s carved from is arresting. Served with jus and tortillas, it’s brown on brown on brown. It tastes brown, too - savory pork with gravy, but lacking heat or brightness or contrasting flavors. Guacamole is served in a molcajete, the traditional mortar and pestle, but its texture is slick rather than chunky. It doesn’t have the vibrant taste of freshly mashed, ripe avocado. Shrimp tacos, at least, are a pleasure, accompanied by cabbage slaw and served in a wooden stand, trapped like a prisoner in the stocks.
Weeks later, the food is slightly improved. The guacamole isn’t much better, but it’s redeemed in a version mixed with chunks of lobster and slices of chilies. This offers more flavor and texture, and there is a generous amount of lobster contained within. Chicken is served in a traditional mole, a sauce containing chocolate and chilies; Temazcal gooses a jarred version with honey for sweetness. Goat basted with grapefruit and molasses is greasy, but with good interplay between sweetness and acidity. Simple things prove stumbling blocks, however. A salad of jicama, oranges, and cilantro appears to have been tossed with an entire RDA’s worth of sodium.
On the next visit, there is yet more incremental progress. A plump quail is stuffed with chorizo and panela cheese, then wrapped with bacon and roasted. The juicy bird takes on a smoky flavor, and it sits in a pool of chipotle-based sauce, adding more smokiness. Tamales are packed with sweet lobster meat. Often, the addition of lobster to macaroni and cheese or pizza, tacos, or guacamole, seems gratuitous, pandering by means of everyone’s favorite luxury ingredient. This riff has rationale. It’s a Mexican variation on New England summer: corn and crustacean.
Enchiladas feature chicken wrapped in tortillas and bathed in a complex salsa verde, tart with tomatillos and fragrant with cilantro, grilled onions, chilies, and more. One traditional dish, filete al chipotle, seems like a parody of what Americans might want Mexican food to be - a cheese-topped mountain of tenderloin rubbed in chipotle.
It’s so large and rich, it’s hard not to laugh looking at it, but it is a satisfying enough version of what it is. If carnitas tacos need salt and ceviche is bland, adorned with the world’s least spicy jalapenos - if, in fact, few dishes here have much heat at all - the situation is still looking up.
For tequila enthusiasts, things are downright rosy. There are more than 300 varieties on offer, along with a range of margaritas and other cocktails, as well as standard-issue wine and beer. Beware the Margaux, a mixture of Grand Patron Burdeos, 150-year Grand Marnier, and lime juice. It costs $100, which your server will not mention when you order it. There are frequent lapses and lags in service, no surprise given the chaos. It’s a small miracle that waitresses manage to remain sassy and upbeat throughout.
They also manage to keep tabs on a fleet of filchable iPads, used in place of paper menus. It’s a gimmick, but an interesting one. The devices provide an image of each item, then link diners to information about its history and preparation. There are recipes for many of the offerings, accompanied by nifty “before’’ photos of the ingredients arrayed in their uncooked state.
One of the best things to eat at Temazcal isn’t even on that menu. Complimentary tortilla chips are served with three excellent condiments - a red salsa, a green version (it appears again with the enchiladas), and heavily, deliciously pork-scented black beans.
One of the worst things to eat at Temazcal is dessert, which may be why our server fails to offer it. When we ask, she brings over a tray of sorry-looking sweets for us to examine. We try a few cakes and wish we hadn’t bothered. According to Hall, a large commissary kitchen is being built for Temazcal and Jerry Remy’s Sports Bar & Grill, which he also oversees. Until it’s ready, he’s been buying his desserts elsewhere.
Hall expresses a deep commitment to teaching his kitchen staff. That’s admirable. The food here is improving by degrees. Perhaps someday it will rival the view as Temazcal’s main attraction.
Devra First can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.