Lyn Dowling, For FLORIDA TODAY
Two times we had gone to Masa Taqueria y Cantina in hopes of reviewing it and two times it could not be done, out of fairness to restaurant and readers; all sorts of problems were there, in everything from food to service.
The third time was the charm: What a turnaround Masa has done.
One of those restaurants that is decidedly informal — the bar is big and dominated by a wide variety of tequilas — it’s not flashy or loud (no sombreros and serapes on the walls, only Dia de los Muertos-representative art) but softly-lit, a dandy date or dinner place. The outdoor dining space is comfortable and sizeable, and the whole place is immaculate.
Chips and salsa ($5; $6 with queso or $7 with guacamole) do not hit the table the moment you take your place and chewier totopos are available too, not something you find often in these parts. Otherwise, antojitos include now-requisite elote ($4) as well as the usual appetizer offerings, plus tuna ceviche ($12) and spicy crab guacamole ($14), a nice pair of twists.
It is Mexican-American, and so “Roll it Up” includes burritos, chimichangas and enchiladas. “Americano” has a Hamburguesa Queso ($12) and Totchos ($7) or tater tot nachos; Las Comidas are full meals like Steak Chimichurri ($25) and Acuna Shrimp ($23); and there are sandwiches and bowls.
With an eye toward comparison, we started with pretzels and queso ($9), and others who serve them elsewhere should look to their laurels, because these are among the best in the area: four, served mouth-searing hot, crispy on the outside and soft within, not overdosed with salt and ever so slightly savory. The queso is not the norm either, but thick and full of actual cheese, if a touch salty. If you visit Masa for nothing but those pretzels, you’ll be fine.
It was a taco kind of day. Masa being a taqueria, and so we went for one al pastor ($3.50 each) of the street variety, plus barbacoa (also $3.50 each or $16 for three big ones); and Crunchy Gringo Tacos ($13), all of which received raves.
The “gringo” trio did not come in the typical shell, but in a rather flaky bit of homemade pastry, filled with finely ground beef, lettuce tomatoes, onion and cheese, and our dining companion loved them, saying they had a little zip, were neither bland nor killer-spicy. The beans and rice accompaniment also received high praise.
So too the tiny street tacos, the al pastor (pork) variety of which included bits of pineapple grilled and served with the meat, all of it properly served flat. The barbacoa, which includes a good bit of cotija, was called “one of the best tacos I’ve ever had, and I have had tacos everywhere” by another companion.
A fellow diner also raved about the enchiladas rancheras ($15), a heaped-high plate of meat and cheese rolls crowned by rioja sauce and house cheese. It looked marvelous, and it was a shame he dug into them too quickly for us to get a photo, but the cheese enchilada is terrific, not merely a wrapped-up bit of baked sharp cheese; a thing of flavor.
Dessert was churros ($7), not normally what we’d order, but perfect in this case: well-fried, crispy and beautifully presented, with a sliced fresh strawberry as well as caramel and chocolate sauces and a cup of whipped cream. Very nicely done.
If Masa slipped anywhere, it was with service, and probably because our server was relatively busy. We had to ask for utensils and napkins, one diner had some confusion about sizes of taco servings and we were not approached about beverages from that well-stocked bar; a shame, because we would have ordered some. We also had to inquire about desserts, but not before the server closed out our bill. He wasn’t bad, just seemed distracted in a restaurant that was anything but crowded.
Nevertheless, we will be back, and probably often. Masa has turned the corner and delivers pretty, delicious food in a great setting.