In case you’ve been living in an abandoned subway tunnel for the last two years, Gomez Salsa is a walk-up window on 12th Street that shares a space with bar HalfCut. It’s incredibly popular with the late-night crowd and downtown lunchers alike. The eatery serves tacos, burritos and burrito bowls, but it’s known for its signature menu item, the Turtle Shell. More on that later.
The new location, dubbed Gomez Salsa Cantina, is located in Walnut Hills — an area that has seen its own resurgence as of late. Owner Andrew Gomez is excited to be part of the renewal of the neighborhood he’s lived in for a long time. “I’m thrilled we made the choice to go through with everything and we could help be a catalyst to its new era,” he says via email.
The cantina pays homage to the original OTR location with a single walk-up cash register where you place your order (inside the restaurant, of course). There’s no paper order form to fill out here, just a big printed menu on the wall. The menu makes it easy to order by featuring four distinct “styles”— pre-designed combinations of ingredients, including the standard “Gomez” style (rice, black beans, crema, corn, Gomez pico salsa, lettuce, cheese), along with Diablo (rice, pinto beans, crema, habañero hot sauce, pickled jalapeños, kowabunga hot salsa, lettuce and cheese), Baja (rice, pinto beans, Baja sauce, pickled onions, pineapple salsa, lettuce, cheese) and Southwestern (rice, black beans, spicy crema, fajitas, verde tomatillo salsa, lettuce, cheese).
Gomez assured us that customers can always build their own combinations and noted the current styles are still being tweaked. “We talked about the different styles and ingredients in our meetings over the last couple months to get to where we are now. It’s almost finalized,” he says.
All the items — tacos, bowls, burritos or Turtle Shells — are $9. You select your item, then your protein, then your style. Chips, salsa and guacamole are also available, along with a full bar featuring signature margaritas, sangria and a good beer selection.
On a weeknight not long after their opening, the place was buzzing. I went for an order of tacos with chicken, Diablo style, the hottest option. The $9 buys you three tacos.
The tacos come on flour tortillas by default, but you can request corn tortillas like I did. The tacos are standard in size and come individually wrapped in foil. Chunks of tender chicken made up the bulk of the filling, and they were topped with lettuce and a little soft crumbly white cheese. The numerous other ingredients were present in smaller quantities (note: rice and beans are omitted from tacos); however, the zingy pickled jalapeños stood out. They were sweet-hot, reminiscent of a hot cinnamon candy. I think it was the jalapeños that made these delicious tacos almost too hot for me to eat. Almost.
If you can handle the heat, the Diablo style doesn’t disappoint. I dipped a chip in some guacamole every so often to extinguish the fire in my mouth. The chips and guacamole ($4 small; $6 large) had a lightness to them. The flavorful, fresh chips were somewhat thin and crispy, as opposed to crunchy, and the guacamole was smooth and deceptively full-flavored. I almost finished it before my tacos arrived. That said, the small is pretty small. If you’re sharing, go for the large.
The girlfriend ordered a Turtle Shell, which is a burrito tortilla stuffed with rice, beans and the ingredients of your choice, plus a crunchy tortilla right in the center and a layer of crispy melted cheese on top. It’s cut into halves, and you eat it sort of like a sandwich. Turtle Shells are large and filling and everyone who eats one raves about it. Being a vegetarian, she chose tofu as her protein and also opted for Diablo style. The tofu is cut into small cubes, marinated and flash fried, so it’s flavorful and crispy. Like I did with my too-hot tacos, she chomped right through the heat, eyes watering, still singing the Turtle Shell’s praises.
At the bar, I asked about the Fire Margarita ($6) infused with jalapeño. I’m a big fan of the actual flavor of jalapeños, if the heat is tempered enough that I can taste them without experiencing pain. The Fire Margarita delivers just that: good jalapeño flavor, balanced by the sweet and sour of the margarita. It’s not spicy, just delicious. I’d choose it over the standard margarita, which was good but a little sweeter than I prefer.
On another visit, I ordered the bowl with barbacoa. The cashier suggested I go with Southwestern style. The generously sized bowl of goodness was on par with the taste and quality of other dishes we tried. The slow-roasted shredded beef was very good — juicy and well seasoned. The verde salsa was fresh and tangy, but not spicy. The bowl only had a sprinkling of cheese, but that didn’t disappoint me, especially after taking a bite. Next time, I’ll add a side of one of the spicy sauces to give it some kick.
Like the mural on the exposed-brick wall of the dining room declares, Gomez Salsa Cantina is “keeping it fresh” with both their ingredients and ideas. If you’re tired of the chain and chain-like Mexican options, Gomez is a refreshing departure from the norm.
Gomez Salsa Cantina
GO: 2437 Gilbert Ave., Walnut Hills; CALL: 513-954-8541; INTERNET: gomezsalsa.com; HOURS: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday.