Chida Cantina has big shoes to fill – it’s taking the place of old Leeds favourite Sandinista, but trust us when we say that it’s definitely up to the task.
Chida Cantina is many things. It’s a place to eat, it’s a place to drink and it’s place to socialise – but at its heart, it’s a party bar, just like Sandinista was before. Open ’til late, they’ll be plying you with tacos, cocktails and tunes – but that’s just about the only thing this new concept bar has in common with its predecessor.
A little slice of Mexico in Leeds
Chida Cantina opens tonight and it takes its inspiration from Mexico. The concept was born of long days and late nights spent scouting out the best bars, restaurants and distilleries in the country – and you wouldn’t believe how much they managed to pack into the three weeks they were there (or into their suitcases on the way home for that matter).
The result is an authenticity that you won’t find anywhere else in Leeds. That’s not just a buzzword, it’s something they’ve gone to great lengths to do. They’ve taken care to source all the right ingredients, from seedless Persian limes to blue corn tacos, made using the same process the Mayans have been using for thousands of years.
That doesn’t mean that everything is Mexican, that’s just not realistic, but as time goes on, they want bring in Mexican products that you can’t get anywhere else. “There’s no point in saying, we’re Mexican and we’re only going to sell Mexican products, because if there’s good stuff out there and people want to drink it, it makes sense,” Owner Si Ord told us, but they’re certainly not going to sit on their laurels, and you can expect the selection behind the bar to keep getting better. “Our overriding thing, is if we can’t get it now, we may bring it in. Tempest Brewery, for instance, I drank it everywhere over there, and that’s what it should be here.”
The decor is a mish-mash of styles, bringing together all the amazing things they saw and loved on their travels, as Si told us, “We took an insane number of photos, from wherever we’ve been. It’s not like we’re stopping and going back to every picture, but because we’ve taken them, we can have a look and take inspiration from them and say ‘we want that, and we want that’.” They’ve given the unit a serious overhaul, levelling out the floors, so they can run the bar down the entire length of the venue – with high stools to perch on and booths you can all pile into.
Cocktails with a twist, a UK first & a huge array of tequila
If we had to put a label on it, we’d call it a cocktail bar, because Chida Cantina has a menu of tried and tested cocktails, each of which has been put to a panel of local drinkers to make sure it gets their ‘seal of approval’. Robert Jupp, aka local legend Skippy, is heading up the drinks department, and his ‘keep it simple’ ethos means you’ll be enjoying beautifully crafted, stripped back drinks that really pop.
What makes Chida Cantina stand out is the fact that they’re doing something a little different. They’ve tried to produce a menu that pays homage to the classics (there’s a traditional margarita, of course), but they’ve also pushed themselves to create something new – which is why you’ll find two alternative margaritas on the menu too, including a frozen margarita, made with Don Julio tequila in a proper chamber. We’re looking forward to the strawberry and basil one.
“One of the ones people will love is the Batanga cocktail,” Skippy enthused. “We’re going for attention to detail, we’re going for authenticity here. The Coca-Cola in Mexico is a lot less sweet than it is in the UK, so what we’ve done is created a homemade coke syrup that matches the tequila perfectly and then we’re squeezing half the lime in and using it as a garnish, and sprinkling it with with black volcanic Hawaiian salt.”
By now, you’ve probably noticed that tequila is a big thing here. In fact, it’s agave as a whole, because they’ve also got an impressive selection of mescals in what has become an 80-strong collection of the best agave spirits they could get their hands on. It’s at the heart of Mexican culture, and it’s become a really important part of their offering, but don’t be surprised if they make you rethink your favourite shot.
Here it’s about top quality, and often incredibly rare, agave spirits, painstakingly sourced and served in elegant glasses for sipping. Tequila is an incredibly complex spirit, and it’s got a bit of bad rep, so what they’re doing here is inviting you to try it in a new way, and see if you like it as a standalone drink.
“When it comes to mescals, it’s really artisanal – it’s one guy, who teaches his son or grandson or a couple of kids, but they’re all different. There are 300 different agaves, and the way they treat them is all different – you try different agaves back to back and they taste almost as different as whiskey does to gin. Some of them are smoky like whiskey, and some are more botanical like gin,” Si explained.
Not convinced? Don’t worry, they’re not going to ram it down your throat, and you’ve certainly got plenty of options if you’re not into tequila. Their house spirits are what can only be described as ‘the good stuff’ – think Tanqueray gin, Ketel One vodka and Plantation Three Star rum. You’ve got cocktails too, and we’re particularly looking forward to the L.S.D, with its mix of Tanqueray gin, Briottet raspberry liqueur, homemade ‘flower syrup’ with lavender, rose and hibiscus shaken with lemon juice and egg white.
Beer lovers will be well catered for. They’re going to be the first UK bar to serve Estrella Damm Inedit on draught, and they’ll be serving it alongside Camden Pale Ale, Chida Palax and their local hero, which will be Ilkley Brewery’s Barbarossa at launch. They’ve also managed to hunt down some some rather lovely wines from Mexico, Chile, Argentina and Spain, to help you get into the spirit. Some of them might well surprise you – we’re looking at you Marques Del Valle Sauvignon Blanc.
Tacos, sharing boards and an old Mexican hangover cure
Although you’ll most likely go to Chida Cantina to party the night away, you’re not going to want to miss the food. This too is Mexican through and through, with a selection of dishes that are both familiar and new. “It’s centred around tacos, street food, finger food, using great ingredients, with some help from Antony Flynn,” Si told us, although the celeb chef has actually had a very small role to play, supporting the real star of the show, Oliver Edwards.
It’s easy to underestimate tacos, but at Chida Cantina, they’ve tried to elevate them, with interesting toppings and well-balanced combinations. You’ve got pork belly, caramelised pineapple and xi ni pek (Mayan salsa), alongside slow cooked ancho beef cheek, charred sweetcorn and spring onion crema. It’s not all meaty either, they’ve two delectable options for the veggies – roasted cauliflower, pequin chilli sweet potato, chipotle mayo and sesame seeds or sauteéd chestnut mushrooms, spring onion crema, burnt spring onion and toasted hazelnuts.
They’ve created some really interesting flavours, and a lot of that comes down to the chillies. They can be sweet and fruity, smoky or fiery hot – and finding the right balance is part of the art of Mexican cooking.
“We’re using a Mexican supplier from Luton for all our chillies, so we’ve got loads of different ones in the kitchen. Instead of just having the normal chillies that everyone has over here, we’ve tried to open people’s eyes a bit more with the chillies we’re using,” Head Chef Oliver explained. “We’ve got a slow cooked ancho beef cheek taco – ancho is a type of chilli, it’s got a big flavour and it’s quite smoky – it’s got a stronger flavour than most other chillies, but it’s not too spicy.”
It’s not just tacos though – in fact, some of the most interesting dishes on the menu are their botanas (snacks) and antojitos (little cravings). There’s the pozole, a traditional Mexican stew made with belly pork, hominy corn, spring onion, coriander and radish. The corn is washed with lime, which brings out the nutrients, and it’s said to be an old Mexican hangover cure.
And if that doesn’t appeal, maybe the nachos will. “They’re made using yellow corn tortillas, which are your normal ones, with chipotle tortillas and cactus tortillas, which are then mixed together with house pickled chillies,” Oliver told us. “Normally you’d just get jalapeños out of the tin, but we’ve pickled our own in cider vinegar and coriander seeds, so they’re on there with Monterey Jack cheese.”
Chida Cantina has a really strong concept, and it’s set to change and evolve as time goes by – for us, that makes it one of the most exciting openings of 2017. But hell, don’t take our word for it – check it out for yourself and let us know what you think in the comments.
Chida Cantina, 5 Cross Belgrave Street, Leeds, West Yorkshire, LS2 8JP.