We've come to expect fab fish tacos, marvelous skirt steak and kicked-up margaritas from Mexican eateries in the suburbs. But when you can find those elements along with outstanding service, affordable prices and a casual atmosphere where families and couples enjoying a night out can coexist, you've found yourself at Mia's Cantina in Mount Prospect.
Mia's Cantina opened at 143 W. Prospect Ave. in the downtown business district in July 2012. The space blends the industrial feel of an old building with sparse lighting, exposed ducts and wood floors with bold colors and native Mexican plants (even if they are fake). The dining room and bar seat about 60, but the layout makes it feel more intimate. In the summer, alfresco dining is available out front.
Mia's Cantina143 W. Prospect Ave., Mount Prospect, (224) 764-2433, miascantina.com
Setting: Dimly lit storefront with an industrial feel
Entrees: $12 to $18
Hours: 11 a.m. to midnight Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday
In the 18 months Mia's Cantina has been open, it has grown into a popular spot for Mount Prospecters and folks from surrounding 'burbs. And with good reason. Actually, several of them.
Reason No. 1: Attentive, friendly service. I'm leading off with this because too often a restaurant can have good food, even great food, but the service is just, well, lackluster. That certainly isn't the case at Mia's Cantina, and Fernando Ramirez is one reason why.
Sometimes a server can get too familiar too fast, which can be off-putting, and at first you might think that of Ramirez. But his genuine smile, easy nature and command of the menu quickly make you realize this is a man who loves his job and he's good at it. He offered menu explanations and suggestions and comfortably interacted with my family throughout the meal. After dessert he twisted a paper napkin into a rose and presented it to my mother-in-law. Sure he might do that for all the ladies, but it made her night -- and made an impression on all of us.
Reason No. 2: Traditional Mexican food thoughtfully prepared. Mia's Cantina's menu isn't groundbreaking, but familiar dishes are crafted with high-quality ingredients and fresh produce (from the farmers market when in season).
We started with the guacamole, because how can you not. They make it to order in the kitchen (mild, medium or hot). We opted for medium and were impressed with how creamy the avocado was, almost as if it had been whipped before the tomato and peppers were folded in.
Sopes, corn masa boats topped with spicy black beans, are another pleasing and filling starter. Cheese quesadillas, chorizo-cheese dip and a ceviche (made with the fish of the day) also are on the menu. We spotted the ceviche headed to another table and marveled at the giant portion of shrimp nearly pouring out of the martini glass in which it was presented.
There are a handful of salads that can be turned into entree-worthy portions with the addition of steak, chicken or shrimp, as well as a shredded pork and bean chili with toasty, deeply layered flavors. Order it by the bowl and you're likely to leave with tomorrow's lunch.
Mia's fish tacos come three to a plate and even that can be too many for some appetites. Tilapia pieces are dredged in a light beer batter before nestling into your choice of corn or flour tortillas (and yes, you can pick some of each). A chipotle-spiked ranch-like sauce (not too hot) and red cabbage slaw garnish the tacos.
The entree menu is where you'll find fajitas (we could hear them still sizzling as they exited the kitchen), mole-cloaked chicken and tampiquena, a grilled outer skirt steak that warmed me up on a recent chilly night. Instead of melting cheese on the steak, as is traditionally done, a cheesy enchilada comes along side the tender meat that soaks in a cilantro marinade before hitting the grill. A heap of beans and grilled peppers and onions round out this dish.
The menu boasts two desserts: fried ice cream and flan. We went with the restaurant's signature flan. While the flavor hit the spot with vanilla and caramel notes, the texture was disappointingly on the grainy side.
Reason No. 3: The margaritas. If the margaritas at a Mexican spot aren't good -- and I've sipped some clunkers -- people won't come back. And from people I've talked to and, now, from personal experience, the margaritas keep 'em coming back.
Mia's Cantina boasts a large tequila selection and doesn't skimp when it comes to pouring the agave spirit into its version of the classic cocktail. The drinks are generous enough to last through a meal, but not so big you need to be carried home (unless, of course, you keep going).
Do yourself a favor and order the Pinarita. Sure, it sounds odd -- pineapple-infused tequila mixed with fresh lime and pineapple juices and rimmed with chili powder -- but it works. The smokey chili powder balances the fruit-forward drink and keeps each sip from tasting too sweet.
Mia's also stocks a dozen Mexican beers as well as the usual domestic and imported bottles.
Reason No. 4: All of the above. Taken in total, you've got no reason not to visit Mia's Cantina.
• Restaurant reviews are based on one anonymous visit. The Daily Herald does not publish reviews of restaurants it cannot recommend.