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A few months ago, El Portal, one of our favorite cantinas in the Colonia Roma, shut its doors without any warning or fanfare. As we had been customers there for about 15 years, this was a great disappointment, and we were curious when we found out it had reopened. Happily, its current incarnation – as Riviera del Sur, a restaurant that specializes in food from the Yucatán peninsula – promises to be as much of a mainstay for us as El Portal ever was.

Although the owners of Riviera del Sur expanded the place, not much has been changed. It’s airier and more light-filled, with huge picture windows at the entrance, and the new bar is adorned with cheerful retro light fixtures. But clients are still seated at traditional square cantina tables, with slots on the legs to place your drinks, in case you want to cover the surface with a game of dominoes. Friendly waiters dash through the place in vests, neckties and long aprons, same as in any time-honored cantina. And in the middle of the afternoon, strolling guitarists wander in to serenade the crowd, another customary cantina trait.

Aside from any decorative fillips, what distinguishes Riviera del Sur is the food. The menu is mostly made up of antojitos – small plates – with a few main courses and desserts. Many customers will be happy to eat only antojitos; four or five of them make a very hearty meal. And if you stick to them, you’ll get to try more items than if you order main courses.

Among Riviera del Sur’s antojito standouts are the tacos, prepared with tortillas made on the premises. We loved the lechón asado taco, made of crisp, crunchy roast pork and garnished with cilantro and onion. Another excellent taco was filled with poc-chuc, also of pork, but this time marinated in bitter oranges, grilled and embellished with pickled onions and habanero chilis. That’s standard fare in the Yucatán, as is the filling for what proved to be our favorite taco, of pescado tikin xic: tender, succulent fish marinated in annatto and citrus and served in a tomato sauce with refried beans. Vaporcitos are chicken tamales in tomato sauce wrapped in banana leaves, and the sopa de lima – chicken soup cooked with fresh lime and toasted tortilla strips – is another standout. All dishes are accompanied with four different house-made salsas. They are to be used with caution, as most contain fiery habaneros, one of the hottest chilis in Mexico.

When Riviera del Sur was El Portal, customers had the option of ordering from an à la carte menu, or else eating the botana, food served free of charge with the price of drinks. While Riviera del Sur has the ambience of an old-fashioned cantina, there is no botana, and all food is ordered from the menu. (This is an unfortunate tendency that we have observed in many of the cantinas that have opened recently.) Still, prices are reasonable enough. Antojitos range between 20 pesos (about $1.50 US) and 45 pesos (about $3.50). Main dishes are between 120 pesos (about $9) and 180 pesos (about $14). Drinks are 35 pesos (about $2.70) for beer and 85 pesos ($6.50) for most liquors.

While extremely gracious, service can be a little slow when Riviera del Sur gets crowded. We hope management irons out that kink. For the Spanish-impaired, there is a gracious waiter named Jonathan who is eager to show off his fluency in English.

David LidaPJ Rountree

Published on September 29, 2014

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