Since the new year, Jason and I have been making a valiant effort to save some money and calories by not eating out during the week. But let’s be real: we could only hold out so long. So after a long workday this past Tuesday, we headed over to Victory Cantina in Staten Island. Keep in mind that this place is located in the grave of multiple dive bars including Erica Leigh’s and Big Zee’s; I am haunted by images of a beer soaked pool table and creepy, creepy men sleeping at the bar. But, thankfully, Victory Cantina has risen from those tragic ashes and has reinvented the space in a bright and delicious way.
I was surprised to see that on a Tuesday night at about 7:30, all of the tables were full and there were a healthy amount of customers at the bar. Victory Cantina hosts several weekday specials (Margarita Mondays, Taco Tuesdays, Wing Wednesdays), and is equipped with several TVs, if you’re into sports. The decor of the place is interesting to me. I can still see the bones of the previous bars, but was satisfied to feel a completely new energy. Plus they miraculously eliminated the once constant odor in the location and replaced it with the delicious smells of classic Mexican cuisine. Jason and I sat at the bar while we waited for a table to check out the menu (brand new this past week) and order our drinks.
While we sat, we were given some chips and salsa to pick on. The salsa was typical: thick and chunky, but very tomato-ey. It lacked some spice and zest: maybe a little more lime and cilantro? If this is homemade salsa (which I hope it is), you need to up the ante.
We asked the friendly and attentive bartender (Bre) for some suggestions on drinks, as the list was pretty extensive. Based on her suggestions, we went with a Classic Margarita and a Madhouse Margarita. These were great. The classic was exactly classic – nothing really to write about that besides that it was done well. But the Madhouse was really outstanding. I personally hate cucumber based cocktails; I always feel that the cucumber flavor overwhelms the liquor. But this was just the perfect amount of cucumber – light and refreshing – while still being a margarita. And the rim was an excitingly confusing combination of really sweet and spicy at the same time. On top of that, it just looked pretty, so I loved it.
For food, the menu was big and we weren’t in the mood for one thing in particular, so we asked to do a sampling of the house favorites. I’ll go through each, but the theme of this meal was well done Mexican food without the grease and heaviness that you might expect.
The restaurant boasts a variety of wings; we tried the sweet and spicy version and can’t wait to go back to try the rest. They were nice and crispy, a hint of spice (but manageable for people who don’t love things too spicy), and absolutely zero of the gross grease that usually pools underneath a plate of wings. They reminded us of a Mexican spin on General Tso’s chicken, done much much better, and with glorious blue cheese dressing. My only complaint here is that I wished there were some chunks in the blue cheese dressing, but that is simply a matter of preference.
Next up were the Chicken Empanadas. These were good, but of the three appetizers we tried they fell to the bottom of the list. The filling was simple and good (pulled chicken and Monterey jack cheese) but could have used some more flavor. Jason got a bay leaf in his, which wasn’t a big deal but it was awkward for him to pull it out of his mouth mid-chew. The mango Pico de Gallo was delicious and spicier than I expected, but I liked that. And they were cooked perfectly; again zero of the grease that you’d expect from a deep fried dish.
The Queso Chihuahua Dip was the absolute star of the entire meal and I’m officially obsessed with it. The chips were fresh and warm, and the dip itself was weirdly glorious. I’m not sure what Chihuahua has to do with food (and maybe I don’t want to know?), but either way I love it. Where you normally would expect a Mexican queso dip to be a mixture of melted cheeses, peppers, and spices, this was an unusual combination of cheeses, peppers, kale, and mushrooms. And not those shitty flavorless white button mushrooms; they used the really earthy, really flavorful kind (I’m thinking shiitake?). This appetizer is a total must have.
Midway through appetizers, we needed a refill on drinks. So Jason did another Madhouse and I went absolutely insane and did the “Samantha Sunrise.” This is the last kind of drink I would ever order: I don’t do frozen margaritas, especially not pink ones. But I was feeling crazy, and I must admit: I enjoyed every single frozen sip (dammit brain freeze). It’s a basic frozen margarita with red sangria, so while it does look totally fruity and girly and embarrassing, the sangria wasn’t too sweet, giving it a nice balance of flavors.
For our entrees we did a combo of chicken and steak fajitas and tried two tacos. The fajitas were flavorful and good. The chicken was extremely tender and well seasoned. We felt the steak was a little tough (maybe slightly overcooked), but still tasted great. For the tacos, we got the Baja Shrimp, and the Chicken Cordoba. The Baja shrimp was excellent; I was actually surprised at how perfectly the shrimp was cooked. I’ve come to expect Staten Island restaurants to completely overcook seafood, but these were spot on. Combine that with the pineapple flavor and the the chipotle crema… it was awesome. The Chicken Cordoba taco was a little boring; I tasted the taco shell a lot more than anything that was going on inside of it.
The churros were good. Again minimal grease for something fried. They weren’t as sugary as I’ve had in the past which was nice, because sometimes it can be a bit much. We couldn’t tell if they were house made or frozen which leads me to believe that they probably were frozen. But while they didn’t stand out as something super original, they were tubes of sugar covered fried dough and you can’t really go wrong with that.
Throughout our meal our waitress was attentive and friendly. We were checked on regularly, and our waters were kept full. Some of the older Yelp reviewers complained about service, and it seems to me that the management has made a commendable effort at correcting that issue. The restaurant continued to rotate tables thought the course of our two hour meal: impressive for a Tuesday night with no major sporting event. And while I must admit, it’s hard to walk past the neighboring Joe and Pat’s pizzeria, if you’re in the mood for Mexican, this is the place to go on Staten Island.
As compared with some of the other local Mexican places (Mezcal’s, Paco’s Tacos, Burrito Bar, etc), Victory Cantina takes the cake. Four stars go to them for having some really original flavors and managing to pull off some of the most famously greasy dishes without any grease at all. Everything we tried here was well done, with some real standouts: the queso most of all, but also the wings, and Baja Shrimp taco.
As for some constructive criticism… I like to do this when I see a place that has a lot of potential:
I know that when you’re opening a new spot, funds are always limited. So I see why they probably couldn’t do everything right away. The bartop. The overhang was about 4-5 inches, instead of the much more comfortable 8-10. This leaves people sitting farther away from the actual bar, because their legs don’t really fit underneath. It makes reaching for your drink (or shoveling salsa into your face) just a tiny bit awkward… not a big deal, but something to consider for the future.
The hightop table height was also a little weird. Maybe a few inches too high? Jason and I are probably the only people who notice these things so, again, not a big deal. But I had to say it.
Be consistent with the tortilla chips: don’t give the crappy store bought ones with the salsa and save the good ones only for the queso-buying customers. It’s a pretty cheap giveaway that makes a pretty big difference.
My biggest and realest area of feedback is in the bar. All of the cocktails that we tried were great, so nothing is particularly wrong here. But we’re at a time where craft cocktails are really, really in. Girls love that shit (especially if you throw it in a pretty glass). You guys didn’t have a single mezcal cocktail. You offer a beer flight of the four (kind of boring) beers you have on tap. It doesn’t seem to me that you’re aspiring to be the most upscale Mexican restaurant in the world, and I don’t think you should: your casual dining atmosphere is great and the food is completely solid. But I do think you’re missing an opportunity to offer and educate people on the agave spirits (tequilas and mezcals). You have a really great and personable staff who are more than capable of learning about these spirits and selling them to your patrons. If you’re open to this concept, set up a staff field trip to Xixa, in Williamsburg. They have some really innovative ideas that might inspire you. I think you’d be safe keeping some mid/lower shelf bottles in your speedrail, and adding some cool variety to the display section. If you added some unique concepts to your bar offerings, and paired that with your great food, you’d be setting yourself up to be a completely unique and exciting spot in Staten Island.
All in all, great job. We can’t wait to come back!