Tacos are everywhere these days. They supply the basis of many new concepts, and some riff on the idea is liable to turn up on almost any kind of menu, no matter its relation to Mexican cooking.
What I’ve not seen though was anything quite like the suadero tacos at La Tia Cantina until presented with a plate of them during one weekday lunch.
The filling, saudero, is brisket with a richly beefy flavor and a smooth and melting texture that speaks to long, slow cooking. Slabs of it were embedded in a puffy layer of golden, melted cheese stuck to the corn tortillas with pickled radishes for crunch and precise dots of avocado crema.
With deep flavor and precise composition, the suadero tacos made a suitable introduction to a new restaurant that goes way beyond the familiar basics, one that can open your eyes to the richness of regional variety encompassed in Mexican cuisine.
The same lunch brought shrimp aguachile, a ceviche-like preparation that leaves the seafood essentially raw in a bath of citrus and chiles, sharp with pulsing freshness and flavor and the rippling bite of red onion. It’s a dish that takes some confidence to order, and a whole lot of confidence for a new restaurant to serve to a clientele not necessarily versed in its pleasures.
But that’s what makes La Tia so compelling.
This Metairie restaurant was opened in July by Leo Vazquez and Luis Nava, a pair of 30-somethings who share Mexican heritage and earlier careers in local restaurants. Vazquez's family is from Mexico City; Nava is from Colima on the Pacific coast. They wanted to bring a more traditional picture of Mexican cooking to the table, drawn with a contemporary hand.
The result feels both revealing and accessible. You can come here for tacos and tequila, and you can also try dishes that might become your next obsession.
Carnitas are turned into something like Mexican dim sum, with bits of pork folded into fried dumpling wrappers over a multi-dimensional mole. The redfish is a thick and substantial cut with a rusty red, earthy-sweet coating that tastes a lot like barbecue sauce after a run through the oven.
They are bringing out more specials as the seasons progress. Earlier this fall it was chile en nagoda, or beef stuffed chilies with a walnut cream sauce. More recently, they’ve been running a beef short rib, a brontosaurus-sized portion with a crusty, salty exterior yielding strands of meat beneath to drag through a surrounding moat of a smoky tomato and chile sauce.
La Tia is where I learned about chamorro, the Mexican version of osso buco. The pork flakes easily in big tender chunks from the large shank bone, falling into a base of creamy refried beans surrounded by steak fry-style potatoes. It’s ignited by a sauce based on the cooking juice, poured tableside from a little kettle.
This is the kind of down-home rustic dish I can imagine eating at a cantina that serves beer and chamorro and maybe nothing else. At La Tia, you’re getting it on a busy Metairie cross street from a menu filled with such finds.
Restaurants like this really do feel like they can connect you with the culture behind a cuisine, and that goes beyond the plate.
Vazquez and Nava are passionate about their food, and so too it seems are the other people working here. The service staff are ardent ambassadors for what the kitchen is producing, and their enthusiasm is downright appetizing.
This extends to La Tia’s impressively sophisticated bar, already in the running for one of the better cocktail spots in Metairie. Bartender Ulysses Campos has an evolving list of original cocktails drawing from a deep well of Mexican ingredients. They take their names from La Loteria, the Mexican card game, and many of them practically glow with colorful vibrancy.
Mezcal and a chile liqueur mingle behind the purple, hibiscus-hued body of one called el corazon; another, still awaiting an official name, starts with gin and the Mexican corn liqueur Nixta, which brings its own unique punch behind the drink’s creamy, mellow-soft texture.
This is a distinctive address, but its geometric shape and tall rising roof line have seen many restaurants come and go. La Tia is quite young, but the reception here is encouraging, with dinners proving especially busy as families fill the larger tables and couples and solo diners take the bar seats.
Details are worked into every corner with lucha libre Mexican wrestler figures, Day of the Dead symbols and pieces of both folk art and pop art creating a colorful collage around the place.
There’s a soulful feel here that belies just how recently La Tia opened. It feels like a restaurant that has been around for much longer than a matter of months. But then, bringing deep running flavors to the forefront with distinctive style is a proven path.
La Tia Cantina
4517 W. Esplanade Ave., Metairie, (504) 354-8570
Lunch and dinner daily, brunch Sat. and Sun.
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