Chorney-Booth: Calavera Cantina

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The most common complaint I hear as a food writer is that there aren’t enough good non-chain restaurants in the suburbs. While each of Calgary’s quadrants has some very solid neighbourhood joints, it’s become a pastime for suburban Calgarians to complain that their end of the city is lacking in new and exciting restaurants. It’s also a conundrum for restaurateurs — setting up shop in the ‘burbs can limit their customer base by turning off customers from the other three quadrants of the city, but an increasing number of people don’t want to trek into the city’s core for dinner, especially during a pandemic.

This is why so many foodies in the southeast corner of the city have heartily embraced Starbelly, a trendy spot that opened in Seton in late 2014. A little bit fancier than the well-trodden chains, many southeasterners were thrilled to find a downtown-style and proudly local restaurant in their own backyard. When the Starbelly group expanded to take over The Beltliner diner this summer, it looked like its dedication to the deep south might be waning, but this week the group opened its third full-service restaurant, Calvera Cantina, which is situated in McKenzie Towne at South Trail Crossing.

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Head Chef Michael Westman, left, and managing partner Derek Mihalik pose for a photo at Calavera Cantina on Thursday, March 18, 2021. Azin Ghaffari/Postmedia
Head Chef Michael Westman, left, and managing partner Derek Mihalik pose for a photo at Calavera Cantina on Thursday, March 18, 2021. Azin Ghaffari/Postmedia Photo by Azin Ghaffari /Azin Ghaffari/Postmedia

“We’ve long wanted to build on the Starbelly brand and expand into a group. We didn’t necessarily expect to do it in a pandemic,” says Derek Mihalik, managing partner at the Starbelly Group. “The space became available and I reached out to people in the community to see what was needed in the area and the overwhelming answer was Mexican.”

Located in the old Beer Revolution space (which is also home to the Starbelly Group’s takeout-only Pink Door Pizza), Calavera is inspired by the fresh flavours of Mexico, rather than the Tex-Mex dishes that are fading out of fashion. Chef Mike Westman has a deep love of Mexican food and plenty of experience with it, having recently worked at Magpie and Stump’s El Patio taco bar in Banff. The decor matches the concept: designed by Alykhan Velji Designs, it’s a bright, coastal-inspired room with an adjacent patio, accented with various murals and greenery to make diners feel at least a little bit like they’re somewhere near a beach rather than nestled in between strip malls and big-box stores just off of Deerfoot Trail.

Calavera Cantina has a fresh, clean and uncluttered interior. Azin Ghaffari/Postmedia
Calavera Cantina has a fresh, clean and uncluttered interior. Azin Ghaffari/Postmedia Photo by Azin Ghaffari /Azin Ghaffari/Postmedia

Westman strikes a good balance of staying true to the Mexican flavours he loves and sticking to ingredients that wide swaths of Calgarians will be fairly familiar with. The menu is designed to be approached small plates-style so that customers can try a lot of different things without putting too much faith in a new-to-them dish. The rather substantial corn tortilla tacos ($5) come with several different fillings and are ordered individually so that people can mix and match. There’s also a good variety of other items like the big and juicy chile prawns served on a bed of watermelon and pineapple with pickled fennel ($18), plates of plantain ($7) or chicharron ($7), and the irresistibly fresh and creamy tuna crudo tostada with guacamole and chipotle slaw ($8) that can be cobbled together to form a meal. Mihalik says there are plans to introduce more dishes that go further into the realm of traditional Mexican ingredients and flavours as the restaurant finds its footing.

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A trio of tacos: Al Pastor, fish, and carnitas on the menu at Calavera Cantina. Azin Ghaffari/Postmedia
A trio of tacos: Al Pastor, fish, and carnitas on the menu at Calavera Cantina. Azin Ghaffari/Postmedia Photo by Azin Ghaffari /Azin Ghaffari/Postmedia

“I view Mexican food as being a lot like Italian food — taking simple quality ingredients and letting them shine,” Mihalik says. “The goal was to try to capture what Mexican culture is like from a food and drink perspective while understanding the location that we’re in.”

Of course, you can’t fantasize that you’re on a quick trip to Mexico without a good margarita and in addition to a robust selection of tequila and mezcal, Calavera’s bar mixes up fun margs with additions like coconut water, guava puree, jalapeno and lavender, and Fresno chile.

A fresh margarita served up at Calavera Cantina. Azin Ghaffari/Postmedia
A fresh margarita served up at Calavera Cantina. Azin Ghaffari/Postmedia Photo by Azin Ghaffari /Azin Ghaffari/Postmedia

Calavera Cantina is located at #180, 4307 130th Ave. S.E. The restaurant can be reached at 403-719-8226 or calaveracantina.com.

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Since many of us are still not feeling great about eating out in restaurants and takeout costs can pile up, it’s always nice to find a locally made product that tastes really good and falls in the space between full-on takeout and cooking from scratch. One of the latest on the market is Nai Nai Mi, a line of noodle kits based in St. Albert that is now available in Calgary. Founder Catherine Lee-Hannley developed the product in honour of her grandmother’s noodle shop in Indonesia, where she would often spend her childhood summers.

Nai Nai Mi’s kits are made using Lee-Hannley’s grandmother’s recipes and for a frozen packaged product, the flavours translate astonishingly well. Each kit comes with noodles, a signature sauce, and a smattering of vegetables, all of which cook up in five minutes. The kits are available for delivery through the Uproot Food Store, Alberta Grocery, Organic Box, and Spud. For more information, visit nainaimie.ca.

Elizabeth Chorney-Booth can be reached at elizabooth@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter at @elizaboothy or Instagram at @elizabooth

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