Westside’s Bone Garden Cantina: the ultimate soul food!
Diners walking up the short flight of steps into the Westside’s Lumberyard Lofts will find it hard to miss the intoxicating aromas of steaming masa, simmering mole and fried yuca that waft through the air and draw them toward the psychedelic dream that is Bone Garden Cantina. Inside this foodie haven, it’s wall-to-wall Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead) paraphernalia. Life-size calacas (skeletons) on motorbikes and guitar-strumming mariachi smile from ear to ear. A skull the size of a Mini Cooper overlooks the bar, almost obscuring the neon “Live Nudes” sign. It’s easy to see why crowds line up around the patio most nights. But as weird and wonderful as the decor is, the food is undoubtedly the main attraction.
The menu has something for everyone, from the unapologetically authentic—think red goat soup or seasoned lengua (tongue) tucked into a taco—to the adored chimichangas, burritos, et al. And with the insanely reasonable price point (no dish is more than $12.75), the only thing you need to bring is a healthy appetite. One caveat: It’s a good idea to review Bone Garden’s “policies” before visiting. “If you believe that the customer is always right, this may not be the place for you,” reads one section.
Once the decor shock wears off, consider a refreshing adult beverage made from one of dozens of Bone Garden’s thoughtfully curated tequilas and mezcals. My guest and I luxuriated in our ultra-smooth Suerte “El Doble” and “Viva La Vida Smoky” margaritas, the latter made with petrol-scented mezcal. They were perfect accompaniments for The Three Amigos appetizer, a colorful trio of silky guacamole; tangy, cherry-red pico di gallo salsa; and the star of the show, hot queso. The molten gold, flecked with pickled jalapeño, is the reason you’ll over-indulge on chip noshing. Not to be outdone are the Mexican pork ribs, a bold dish if there ever was one. Marinated in guajillo chiles then slow-cooked in the oven, the journey-to-the-center-of-the- Earth depth of flavors will have you coming back again and again. The same could be said for the pozole verde. Bone Garden’s kitchen has mastered the art of nuanced chile heat, and this thick, pork-rich soup is a great example. Jalapeño is omnipresent but startling in its humility. It tickles the taste buds, the roof of the mouth, the lips, but always just barely, transforming the whole bowl of goodies—avocado, queso fresco, pork and sliced radish—into hominy heaven.
But it’s not all harmless flirtation in the heat department. At a subsequent meal, there were moments of such ferocious chile fire that my body went into distress mode. They are not fooling around with the habanero and chile de arbol salsas. Even the grilled jalapeño slices in the adobo steak quesadilla threw us into a serious frenzy. Whatever hooch you’re drinking, order a horchata, too, or even a cold glass of milk. Seriously. Don’t say we didn’t warn you.
Familiarity seekers will likely lean toward the larger plates of enchiladas, quesadillas and burritos, all fine renditions of the classics and all served with black beans and seasoned rice. We savored the garlic-sautéed shrimp enchiladas, but our favorite in the “big plates” department was the aforementioned adobo steak quesadilla of juicy grilled flank steak made with guajillo-based adobo, cozied into a huge flour tortilla along with fire-roasted jalapeños and melted cheese. It’s a meal large enough for half the table.
Of course, Bone Garden offers salads and lighter fare, too, guaranteed to be as fresh as any of the carnivorous options. The Yucatan and the betabel salads both looked tempting zipping by our table, but we ordered the simpler Bone Garden salad, reminiscent of a traditional taco salad (black beans, corn, tomato, onions, tortilla strips), totally satisfying and served with house-made cilantro-lime vinaigrette. Still hungry? Unless you’re on a date, try some elote, corn-on-the-cob slathered in something that resembles schmaltz but is actually mayo, a sprinkle of queso fresco and a dusting of chile powder.
Small plates abound, good for lunch-onthe- go or for those times the staff needs to enforce a 60-minute max at your table (yes, it gets that busy.) The “holy chorizo” empanada, a crunchy, crisp-fried turnover filled with mild spiced pork and served with a guajillo chile-peanut sauce, is definitely worth the calories, and you can’t go wrong with the soft tacos. Tilapia, nopalitos (cactus), chicharron, steak—each are just a few fast and furious bites of deeply satisfying street fare. The tamales are my favorite of all antojitos (Mexican street food). I’ve tried to make them at home, but none reach Bone Garden status. Red-chile seasoned pork, chicken or goat is packed into husk-scented masa, rolled in a banana leaf and steamed.
Would it be accurate to say Bone Garden Cantina is my new favorite eatery? Quite possibly. Even with the ’round-the-clock clamoring for a table and the nonstop bar buzz, there’s a righteous calm at Bone Garden that seems more apropos of a small-town fonda than a big city cantina. Even when things verge on chaos most weekend nights, the food arrives hot, drinks arrive cold, and the staffers remain cheerful and deferential as if intrinsically aware that we’re all in this together, in the presence of spirits of ages past, enjoying comida that makes us all smile.
BONE GARDEN CANTINA
1425 Ellsworth Industrial Blvd. N.W.,
Prices: appetizers: $2.50-$9.50, soups and salads: $4.50- $9.00, tamales, tacos and empanadas: $3.50-$5.00, mains: $7.50-$12.75.
Suggested: The Three Amigos appetizer, Mexican pork ribs, holy chorizo empanada, el pastor taco, Azteca tamale, pozole soup, shrimp enchilada, adobo steak quesadilla, elote, Bone Garden salad.
Bottom line: This tucked-away Midtown cantina is a perennial favorite, a night-out novelty with unerring commitment to authentic Mexican comfort food.
PHOTOS: Joann Vitelli
Food, beauty and interiors writer at Simply Buckhead. Linguist, teacher, chef, parent.