What Exactly Is a Gastrocantina?

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Remember back in June when we told you that a tequila bar would be replacing the closed-down Heights West on Ella? Our reliable sources were as reliable as always: tequila bar and "gastrocantina" El Gran Malo is opening to the public this Friday, August 26, at 2307 Ella, as Ginny Braud covered earlier this week.

The term "gastrocantina" might be as insufferable as "gastrolounge" or any other portmanteau involving the prefix "gastro," but it's not the first time the term has been applied to a restaurant. Hell, the term "gastropub" is more than 20 years old by now, and was certainly useful when first conceived of as a word. These days, not so much.

Gastrocantinas have been cropping up in places like San Diego at El Take It Easy, so at least it has some precedent. The term seems to have its origins in the now-closed King & Mane in Madison, where the owners couldn't figure out another way to describe their Mexican-American hybrid kitchen.

When I stopped in to El Gran Malo last night to check it out for the first time, I was impressed by the space and the sense that it had always been there, that an LED-lit shrine to tequila and a grand mural featuring every Mexican cultural icon from lotería cards to calaveras should have always been exactly where they were. By night, it's dimly lit and sexy and calls to mind the Titty Twister in From Dusk Till Dawn if it were cleaned up and lacking in vampire strippers.

I asked co-owner Steve Sharma, who was on a quick break between dropping tacos off at hungry tables, what possessed him to call El Gran Malo a gastrocantina. A restaurant-cum-tequila bar with this much gravitas surely deserves a less painfully trendy label. He shrugged his shoulders and grinned sheepishly, explaining how they'd tried to come up with a term to encompass the cantina feel that also incorporated the amped-up food coming out of the kitchen.

"We came up with gastrocantina," he said. "And I looked it up online, only to find places like King & Mane and El Take It Easy had already used it." He chuckled. "It just goes to show you that every idea has already been had."

Leaving the term aside for a moment (in hopes that El Gran Malo's owners will maybe do the same), the menu at El Gran Malo already seems impressive in and of itself: figs stuffed with gorgonzola and wrapped in candied bacon with a melon gastrique, and a Gulf snapper ceviche with jicama and aji amarillo, for example. An assortment of taco fillings includes carnitas, pork belly and still more snapper, while the toppings are equally diverse, from pomegranate salsa to pumpkin seeds.

These last two are more traditionally interior Mexican ingredients -- granadas and pepitas -- and the menu seems interested in exploring the intersection of these foodstuffs with modern American and even Peruvian dishes. It's hardly fair to apply a silly term like gastrocantina to such intriguing efforts, efforts headed up by the talented Greg Lowry. Lowry is working on El Gran Malo as a side project between leaving Voice and starting as sous chef at the upcoming Triniti.

Taken in combination with the wide-ranging spirit selection that includes 50 different tequilas and housemade tequila infusions, as well as 25 different craft beers, El Gran Malo is indeed shaping up to be the kind of place that defies labeling other than, perhaps, the catchall "Third Coast." But Third Coast cantina? Maybe that's stretching it too.

Do we truly need these labels, though? Wouldn't it be more fun (and more accurate) to describe a place to your friends as, "It's like if Dirt Bar was in a cantina and served tacos and tequila." It might be an even better surprise to find those gorgonzola-stuffed figs if I wasn't expecting them, although I expect that El Gran Malo -- from the same smooth operators as Dirt Bar, after all -- will have plenty of pleasant surprises up its sleeve in the months to come.

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