It took Jessica Escamilla at least a year and a half to open BigSur Cantina on Madison’s Far West Side from the time her sign went up, and the transformation from Martin O’Grady’s Irish Pub is dramatic.
The colorful flags that cover BigSur’s ceiling give it a festive feel, and the big menus are so professional you might think the restaurant is part of a chain.
Escamilla has employed a number of gimmicks, including a three-pound burrito that’s free if you can eat it in 12 minutes or less. She said about 15 people have tried, and four have succeeded since the restaurant opened Aug. 29.
No one in our party of three was up for that challenge, but one of the best things we ordered was the Cinco Cinco burrito ($14), named after Cinco de Mayo, the May 5 celebration of Mexican heritage.
It was stuffed with a generous amount of ground beef, plus rice, beans, corn and Oaxaca cheese, and smothered in three sauces, green, white and red, in vertical stripes to approximate the Mexican flag. Some cilantro sat in the center as the coat of arms. It was enormous and delicious.
The tacos were equally impressive, but the corn tortillas were on the small side. They were at least packed with fillings. The BigSur ($4.50) with carne asada, avocado, melted Oaxaca cheese and pico de gallo, stood out.
So did From the Farm ($4), a winning combination of portobello mushrooms, roasted corn and plantains, black bean spread, grilled queso fresco, and enough chipotle cream sauce to pack some heat. Where so many restaurants let vegetarians down with meatless attempts that flop, BigSur comes through here.
The Wabo Cali taco ($4.50) was also spectacular with chorizo, shrimp, Oaxaca cheese, onions and chipotle cream sauce. We ordered the tacos as part of a plate ($13), which effectively made the rice and beans complimentary.
BigSur’s San Diego enchiladas ($16) had excellent marinated grilled chicken, but were otherwise plain. The three corn tortillas were also filled with spinach, poblano peppers and Oaxaca cheese.
They came topped with green mole sauce, sour cream and queso fresco without overdoing it. I appreciated how the rice had lime and cilantro and the borracho beans, or “drunken beans,” were cooked in beer with cilantro, onion, garlic, bacon fat and other ingredients.
The giant platters were scorching hot, so watch your fingers. Nearby, an order of Betty’s Blazin’ Fajitas was set on fire.
The only gimmick we went for turned out to be a disappointment. When Escamilla described BigSur’s trash can nachos ($16) before the restaurant’s opening, I was intrigued, especially when she told me that she and her father, Richard Baer, who owns the restaurant with her, made the cans.
It turned out to be just a giant metal can, the kind vegetables come in, with the label removed. My friend called it a No. 10 can, the size restaurants use. When our server emptied its contents on the plate, the big reveal was underwhelming: an enormous mass of beige with no visible cheese.
The menu promised refried beans, corn, melted queso dip, pickled red onion, pico de gallo, guacamole, crema and jalapeños. The beans dominated in a negative way, but the nachos benefited from a generous amount of pulled pork. Chicken tinga and ground beef were the other meat options.
My friend said he warmed to the nachos because of the abundance of tasty pork.
The guacamole trio ($12) was also a mixed bag, with two bland scoops of guacamole and one fabulous one with pineapple and bacon that the menu also offers on its own. Surprisingly, the trio was served with carrots and celery in addition to tortilla chips.
It’s worth noting that the tri-colored chips were inferior chips that detracted from the enjoyment of the guac. We didn’t take our waiter up on a second round.
My friend did have a second margarita. He ordered his on the rocks ($8) and I had mine frozen ($8.50). Both were great, and I appreciated how the frozen one wasn’t exactly frozen, but instead semi-melted. The small slices of lime in both drinks were a nice touch. “I think the margarita could use more tequila, but that’s just me,” my friend said.
We arrived around 6 p.m. on a Friday and were lucky to get a comfortable booth in back. The bar was full, and by 7, a good-size crowd had formed to wait for a table.
The music — The Who, R.E.M., Bruce Springsteen — wasn’t too loud and came from the jukebox by the bar, which Escamilla said uses a background feed when no one prompts it.
The bathrooms are labeled Bettys and Barneys, in keeping with the California surf theme. The women’s room had too much air freshener, so I made the quickest exit possible.
Otherwise, BigSur, which was inspired by a cantina Escamilla visited with her father while driving along the coast on Route 1 near Monterey, California, is a place where it’s easy to kick back and savor a leisurely meal.
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Wisconsin State Journal feature writer Samara Kalk Derby writes about the arts and brings you the latest news on the Madison area's eclectic restaurant scene. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 608-252-6439.