Review: Dos Amigos Cantina, Mission Bay

By Peter Calder

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Herald on Sunday Rating: 3/5
Address: 93 Tamaki Drive, Mission Bay, Auckland
Ph: (09) 528 7494
Website: dosamigos.co.nz

Dos Amigos has a raffish feel to it, featuring demo timber and corrugated iron. Photo / Jason Dorday
Dos Amigos has a raffish feel to it, featuring demo timber and corrugated iron. Photo / Jason Dorday

Isn't Mission Bay a perfect example of the urban seaside? Rangitoto smiles - or in bad weather, glowers - and the wind scoops white-tops across the harbour surface. So why is it the place that good food forgot?

It has so many bad restaurants that it sometimes seems like a deliberate policy. The strip has long been riven with such vicious factional infighting - I remember a piece in Metro magazine in the 1990s about the various proprietors of Italian places at each other's throats - that when they established a website page of places to dine they excluded (not omitted) several places, including the only one worth eating at in those days, a hand-made pasta restaurant called Sage.

It may be that waterfront joints are immune to criticism in the sense that many people eat there either not knowing or not caring that it's no good: for complete proof that you can fool quite a lot of people quite a lot of the time, you need look no further than Portofino.

A mixture of insane optimism and professional duty drives me back to Mission Bay from time to time and the latest reason was this "cantina" of which I had heard good reports.

It takes only a meagre command of Spanish to translate the first two words of the name, which derives from the two friends, Robert Aylwin and Aaron Calman, who established it almost two years ago (although they have not since updated the website, where the winter of 2010 is still in the future). Those more familiar with Spanish vocabulary will know that a cantina is the name applied, on both sides of the Mexican-United States border, to a place whose customers' primary purpose is drinking.

I make the point because diners who head to Dos Amigos expecting a Mexican restaurant may be disappointed. Of course it serves food - more of this below - but the atmosphere, even in the dining area, was closer to a rowdy bar the night we visited.

This effect was perhaps heightened by the presence of a boisterous octet of males preening their chest feathers as they did tequila slammers at the corner table, but Dos Amigos tends to encourage the approach: there's a hefty discount if you buy your beer by the bucket (an ice-bucket, you understand; the beer is in bottles) and tequila gets a page to itself in the menu.

So do margaritas, although they may not all be entitled to that name. Our basic model was more like a lemon drink with a whiff of alcohol - suitable for beachside thirst-quenching perhaps, but not what you would call a heart-starter.

Dos Amigos has a nicely raffish feel to it: the walls are lined with rough demolition timber and corrugated iron, and the tables are snugly, even tightly, packed. The service is a little vague and the wait must be hideous when it is packed, if our experience on a quarter-full evening is any guide, although they make the point on the menu that they don't make fast food. What they do make is perfectly palatable but it would be a stretch to call it remarkable. The Mexican food in Auckland is generally shocking - with the honourable exceptions of El Camino in Kingsland and the resolutely unusual Mexican Specialties in Ellerslie - that it doesn't take much to stand out from the crowd and Dos Amigos' food is at least freshly made, as opposed to some of the bain-marie blah that gets packed into taco shells around town.

Quite what buffalo wings are doing in a Mexican restaurant is anyone's guess and the absence of ceviche from the menu of a harbourside place is very puzzling. But the fajitas, which arrive on a dramatically sizzling platter to be assembled by the diner, are made with excellent beef. By contrast, the burritos were rather meanly overstuffed with rice and are more filling than fabulous.

The major gripe is that the food lacked any real zing: the chicken mole (a chocolate-sauce classic) was positively bland in look and taste. Some dishes are indicated as being "picante" but a bowl of salsa on the table and a slightly more adventurous approach by the chef is needed to elevate this place from the ordinary to the special.

Also try

The fish and chips from the Fish Pot Cafe, eaten while sitting on the sea wall. Otherwise, as the New York cops say, keep moving; there's nothing to see here.

- Herald on Sunday

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