Canteen Modern Tequila Bar
640 S. Mill Ave., Suite 110
Tempe, AZ 85281
I’ve been really excited to try Canteen Modern. I caught one of the bartenders doing a tequila tasting lesson at another establishment on Mill before it opened and eavesdropped attentively: intriguing. On one of the first days it was open, I walked by slowly and scoped out the patrons' food: visually impressive. Then the reviews starting coming in: “grown up food on Mill.”
I got our party of four on the list and with twenty minutes to wait, headed to the bar. There’s a truly impressive tequila selection, in addition to a good variety of beers. I got a house margarita ($6.50). It was good, but nothing special.
We found a table outside to wait. And we waited. Thirty minutes passed before I sent a member of our party to see what was going on. Almost immediately a hostess came to get us. She asked if we minded that the table was near the bar. I said we didn’t.
Then we saw the table. It was basically a 4x6 plank. I went back to the hostess station, informed them there were four of us and that we planned to both have dinner and to speak to one another, two things that did not seem possible at the table we’d been seated at.
I was told it would be another 30 minutes if I insisted on a real table, or we could have a table
outside. By the table outside, the hostess meant the table we had just been sitting at for thirty minutes on a chilly evening without the propane heaters lit with no visible table service. I, now thoroughly disgruntled, went back to my elongated party of four spanning the 4x6.
A server came over and inquired if we’d come from the bar and if we’d closed our tab. It was a bit odd to be greeted with the insinuation that we’d walked out on our bar tab. Even more so given we appeard to still be in the bar. We assured her we were even and ordered chips and guacamole ($7). A good bit later, chips and salsa arrived. The correction came quickly enough.
After managing to corner our server again, we ordered a slew of tacos: grilled Carne Asada with cilantro chimichurri; Grilled Mayan shrimp marinated with tequila, sour orange, and date agridulce; grilled Portobello mushrooms with casabel salsa and smoked blue cheese, fried fish with pickled red jalapenos. We also ordered a plate of the roast corn and poblano tamales. Small plates, which are pretty small (three, two-bite tacos) run from $6-$11 with most in the $10 range. Dinner plates, which we didn’t venture in to, are between $16-25.
The tacos were generally delicious. I was really impressed with the way sweet and savory flavors played off of each other in the shrimp tacos. The smoky and earthy flavor combination in the Portobello mushroom tacos was also nice. The Carne Asada was the overall favorite at the table.
Less impressive were the fish tacos. The fish was prepared well—not greasy at all—but there wasn’t anything interesting going on, though I missed the pickled jalapeno in the bite I got (a few more per taco might have been nice) and was informed by my husband that it really made the dish. The tamales were the least favorite at the table. The sauce was very nice, but the poblano and corn were delicate flavors and they couldn’t stand up to the really heavy masa shell of the tamales. The menu implied there was cheese in this dish, but it was totally lost.
A server helped a friend in my party chose a tequila. I know almost nothing about tequila, but was really impressed with the subtle complexity of flavors in the one he chose. I look forward to learning more.
So the situation with getting a (pseudo)table, the noise level, the mix up with our starter, and the somewhat dreadful service did not predispose me to like Canteen Modern. I suspect we would have had a really different dining experience if we had made it out of the bar area to the restaurant side of things. But we didn’t, despite my best efforts. Then there were the whispers of “over-priced” I caught from other members of my party. If the service had been anywhere near as good as the food, I doubt I would have been hearing this.
I wanted to hate Canteen Modern by the end of the meal as much as I wanted to like it before trying it. Unfortunately, the food was good enough that I will be tempted back in. Still, to quote chef Tom Colicchio, “People come to a restaurant for the food. They come back for the service”. Canteen Modern may be serving "grown up food", but there are some growing pains to work through. They'd do well to work the kinks out. Quickly.