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Two sides to every story at Moe’s Cantina, in food, atmosphere, noise

Mexican sliders (grilled skirtsteak grilled chicken) Moe's Cantin155 W. Kinzie st. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

Mexican sliders (grilled skirtsteak and grilled chicken) Moe's Cantina, 155 W. Kinzie st. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

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155 W. Kinzie; (312) 245-2000;

Hours: Open at 11 a.m. daily for lunch and dinner.

Prices: Skewers, $9-$10; traditional plates, $11-$16; small plates (hot and cold), $4-$12.

Try: Skewers (shrimp, wild boar), Mexican sliders, guacamole, chips and salsas

Wheels: Wheelchair accessible on the first floor.

In bite: Moe’s Cantina is OK if you are looking for a bar in which to get a bite. Or a bar where you can watch TV (a dozen or so all over the place). The food is quasi- (but not crazy) Mexican in scope with just about every dish you would expect to find in a Mexican restaurant. The cavernous space, including a balcony on high, with its hard-surfaces decor (wood and more wood) makes for a robust level of noise on a busy night (lunch is a lot more pleasant). Pricey, specialty cocktails abound . Sangria, a full house of tequila brands and a few wines. Not good for children. Reservations accepted.

KEY: ★★★★ Extraordinary;
★★★ Excellent; ★★ Very Good;
★ Good; Zero stars: Poor

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Updated: September 15, 2011 12:28AM

Moe’s Cantina in River North has a split personality. If you like sports of any kind, a four-deep bar scene, earlobe-rattling noise, very spotty service and you are thirtysomething, Moe’s at night is your kind of place. If you like quiet (relatively speaking), somewhat better service and an empty bar (more or less), then Moe’s for lunch or early dinner will work for you. Either way, you will not be TV-deprived. There are a dozen or more flat-screen TVs all over the place. Moe’s is either a sports bar that thinks it’s a restaurant or a restaurant that got a deal on a bulk purchase of TVs.

Moe’s rattles the rafters, and there are a lot of them about 30 feet or more up there in its cavernous space that once housed an interesting antique store. A friend of mine insists a bar is the heart of a restaurant. I don’t agree. This cantina is all about a scene that wobbles back and forth between bread and booze. That is an observation, not a criticism. In fact, its Mexican food shows promise.

Let’s start with the “cold small plates” section of the menu, where a trio of salsas arrived in the company of a basket of chips. Good chips, so-so salsas. I fixated on the mango salsa (mostly because I love mangoes), which had the right blend of lime, cilantro and red onion. The pico de gallo was too tame, but the tomatillo salsa had enough jalapeno to fire up my interest.

Guacamole? Of course. Good texture (“hand-mashed avocado” according to the menu) allowing for some chunky here and smooth there. Even better was that this guac had the right balance of cilantro, onions, tomato and lime. A little more heat (as in spicy) would have made it even better.

Higher interest revolved around that part of the menu noted as “mesquite-grilled skewers.” Seven options in all: four shrimp, one skirt steak, two chicken.

The grilled food is served on a skewer, which is then hung on a stand, a trapeze or hanging-lantern kind of arrangement. Two shrimp and one chicken later, I was somewhat impressed. The best of that lot was the camarones al mojo de ajo. Four jumbo shrimp got fancied up with a garlic and olive oil glaze. Simple yet engagingly flavorful.

The skewer with chicken and bacon was old hat and boring.

Not so boring was the salchicha de Jabli, or wild boar sausage. The sausages were plump, juicy and quite delicious. With some of these skewers, I might suggest to Moe’s operators (Moe’s is owned by the John Barleycorn people, a long-standing Chicago culinary hangout) that they serve a sauce of some kind on the side. With the wild boar skewer, I would have liked some kind of garlic-mustard sauce.

If you haven’t had your fill of sliders yet, Moe’s does a bunch of exceptionally good “mini bolillos.” The bolillos, or buns, were firm yet soft enough to put a squeeze on to and not allow the filling to slide out. Good idea, because there was a lot of good stuff tucked into those sliced buns. Grilled skirt steak with chipotle steak sauce was my favorite, but not far behind in enjoyment was cochinita pibil (Mayan-style pit pork) topped with a zingy jalapeno slaw. At four bucks each, these are a steal. Don’t fall for the Spanish rice side dish, though. I never did like pink rice, but this was one pasty, ugly mess of rice.

Pat Bruno is a local free-lance critic and author. Listen to Pat Bruno talk about food and wine at 6:23 and 10:23 p.m. Tuesdays and 7:53 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays on WBBM-AM (780) News Radio.

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