Peek into the kitchen at Licha’s Cantina and you won’t see a chef whose face you recognize from a profile in a glossy magazine.
While formal training for chefs gains popularity in Mexico, the country’s culinary tradition has historically resided and prospered in family kitchens. Most of Licha’s co-owner Daniel Brooks’ family still lives in Mexico’s capital, and his “passionate, cook-driven” restaurant pays homage to his birthplace.
Squint your eyes and use some imagination and the East Sixth Street restaurant, named after Brooks’ mother, Alicia, looks like it could have been transported from a forest in Jalisco, while much of the food mirrors what you might find on the streets of Mexico City.
Anyone who has visited Mexico City will recognize tlacoyos, staples of the city’s street food scene. Licha’s, which opened in March, offers three variations on the black bean-filled, football-shaped blue masa cakes. (They cost $10 each, a price that will surprise those accustomed to Mexico prices or the prices at Austin places like Mi Tradición.) I’ve never seen a tlacoyo draped in velvety mole like the one at Licha’s, but the complex nutty and chocolatey sauce provided a nicely balanced depth to the sweet, succulent shrimp drizzled with sesame cream sauce.
The tlacoyo de nopal hid beneath a tangle of tangy grilled strips of cactus paddles zagged with creamy avocado salsa and crema fresca and piled with a summer snowstorm of queso fresco. The various versions of masa generally balanced crackle and chew, though one tlacoyo we ordered put up a stubborn fight.
The question of flour or corn at Licha’s is about as germane as the paper-or-plastic query in Austin these days. You’re getting corn. Sometimes it’s blue corn, such as that used in crunchy quesadillas ($10) filled with mozzarella-like Oaxacan cheese and items like huitlacoche. The corn fungus, considered a delicacy in Mexico and sometimes called Mexican truffles, is frozen, not canned, which gives the musky ingredient a more robust flavor that moves in like a fog underneath the layer of creamy cheese the color of clouds.
Thick and fluffy corn tortillas wrap tacos like the sweet strands of roasted pork in the al pastor ($14), topped with a vibrant pineapple slaw. Corn is used in the masa dough that is pounded into oblong shapes and fried to make huaraches ($10). A dark layer of mushrooms paints the champiñón huaraches with earthy flavors that are brightened and tamed by peanut sauce and sesame cream.
A friendly server championed the lengua tacos ($14) with good reason. The sauce on the tender beef tongue whispered smoky notes from a chorus fronted by cascabel and passila chilies but had a firm iron backbone tickled with the pickled flavors of escabeche.
The knowledgeable and gregarious service staff led our table through the various street food iterations. Brooks was a longtime general manager of South Austin’s Vespaio (that restaurant’s co-owner Claude Beneyoun is Brooks’ partner at Licha’s), and his years of front-of-house experience are evident in his staff’s attentiveness and accommodating vibe.
The restaurant, pushed back from the hustle of the street, has a casual, off-the-beaten path aesthetic, with whitewashed tables sitting on the front lawn beneath trees wrapped in twinkle lights. The small, 100-year-old building, which used to be a typewriter museum, hosted underground hip-hop shows in the ’90s, and Brooks has taken advantage of the large back space, filling it with about a dozen tables. It should make a great dining spot when the hot weather abates, though I hope the kitchen can handle the potential demand.
Weathered wooden walls, wire-caged lights, a long basin sink outside the restrooms and colorful Mexican art give the interior of the restaurant a sense of place, history and character. The small bar at the restaurant that used to be Papi Tino’s serves mostly Mexican wine and beers and prepares excellent cocktails. La Mula ($8), a Mexican take on a Moscow Mule, relied on the smokiness of mescal and a paprika-lined rim to cut tart ginger beer and lime juice, and a spectacular specialty cocktail one night ($8) blended Sotol with rose water, cardamom bitters and grapefruit liqueur for an intoxicating sweet-and-floral blend.
The refreshing cocktails were crisp summer accompaniments for a ceviche ($15) that exploded like a seafood piñata, with meaty hunks of grouper, broad slices of avocado and bright cubes of ripe mango teeming in a citrusy sauce. The succulent citrus-juiced pork of the cochinita pibil ($15), one of the eight dishes served in small clay pots, matched the ceviche’s tart vibrancy.
At the other end of the spectrum were the deep, bold flavors of duck enchiladas ($15) in a rich mole poblano warmed with roasted chilies, chocolate, nuts and spices, and the gaminess of a braised goat stew ($15) dotted with firm garbanzo beans.
Desserts come in pre-packaged plastic containers from Susan Shields and Nathan Bowman of Di Lux Catering. Items hewed toward Mexican custom, but their consistency — a too-firm tres leches cake ($7) and a grainy Mexican chocolate pot de crème ($6) — made for a flat-footed landing after two dinners.
After years of managing restaurants for others, it’s exciting to see Brooks, who moved here as a high school student, fulfill his vision by imbuing a restaurant with personalized soul and operating it with professional grace.
1306 E. Sixth St. 512-480-5960, lichascantina.com
Rating: 8.5 out of 10
Hours: 4 to 11 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday and 4 p.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday.
Prices: Ensaladas, tacos, tlacoyos, etc. $7-$15. Cazuelitas, $12-$15. Platos, $15-$24.
What the rating means: The 10-point scale is an average of weighted scores for food, service, value, ambience and overall dining experience, with 10 being the best.
The Bottom Line: Licha’s Cantina honors the flavors and spirit of Mexico from a charming rustic bungalow on Austin’s east side.