RESTAURANT REVIEW: Mar y Tierra Cantina & Grill brings upscale Mexican fare to West Third Street 2.5 years after first listing

The octopus motif is ubiquitous at Mar y Tierra Cantina & Grill. It’s on the logo, which appears throughout the restaurant, affixed to the chairs in the dining rooms and in the bar and here and there on the walls. A whimsical cephalopod spans the entire entrance ceiling.

But despite a pretty long seafood selection, as you’d expect from the name, the only octopus on the menu is the logo octopus. No pulpo, as we say in Spanish.

Mar y Tierra, on Third Street West in Little Rock near the State Capitol, does not hold the record for the longest wait for an area restaurant from announcement to opening – that honor very much belongs probably at Kobe Japanese Steakhouse & Sushi, which was just a “coming soon” sign for about five years on unbroken ground on the boardwalk in the Little Rock Financial Center.

But it’s certainly high on the list of long ‘approaches’ – 2.5 years between the first report, in November 2019, that the restaurant was on hold and the date last month (May 3) when the doors closed. are actually open. In the meantime, the place has had to deal with all sorts of construction delays, not to mention changes in chef, owner, management and even name.

Based on a dine-in and take-out sampling of its extensive menu, which co-owner Hugo Rios proudly proclaims to be over 200 dishes, we can say the wait was worth it. And we hope it survives in a revolving-door space that has housed at least eight former food and drink establishments over the past two decades or so, some of which have had extremely short lifespans.

The octopus motif is ubiquitous at Mar y Tierra Cantina & Grill, on the logo and also on the walls – a whimsical cephalopod stretches all the way from the ceiling in the lobby – but not on the menu. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Eric E. Harrison)
So far the food has been good, priced just a bit higher, maybe, than most of its Mexican competitors, albeit for huge portions. The staff are friendly and the service has been good. There is a pleasant patio with a nice view of the Capitol building. The parking lot, however, is a little weird – it sort of wraps around the building and the entrance and exit are at the back (west).

The free fries have always been fresh and crispy, not just at lunch when you know they’re fresh out of the fryer, but also at dinner. The consistency of the free red salsa has been consistent, but we’ve noticed the spiciness level has fluctuated slightly over the month since we first tried it, indicating that it may still be a work in progress.

Otherwise, start with the cottage cheese dip at $4.25 for the regular size, which is more than enough for a single dinner. The big $6.99 was more cheese dip than we needed to feed a party of three. It has a light but pleasant kick, and the consistency remained smooth even after sitting on the table for a bit – it thickened a bit but never developed a skin, as queso often does . Appetizers on our list for future visits include Guacamole Mexicano (“freshly chopped avocado with onions, tomatoes, cilantro and jalapenos,” $7.99), ground beef dip (also $7.99), and Queso Fundido ( $8.99).

Most of the time we tried and were satisfied, even thrilled with the Mar y Tierra versions of things we enjoyed at other establishments in the area. The Alambre, for example (normally $14.99 but a “special” weekend for $13.99, $16.99 if you get it with prawns instead or adding prawns) was delicious – chicken, steak or grilled meats mixed with bits of bacon and ham, green peppers and onions, topped with lots of melted cheese, even more than expected. A nice orange rice and rather soupy refried beans came on the side. It was a monster portion – we took about half of it home – and made a great lunch even as cold leftovers.

We also enjoyed our Molcajete ($16.99), another of the Especialidades Mar y Tierra, grilled chicken, steak and prawns in a slightly tangy green sauce, served in a “stone” cauldron and garnished with a split ancho chile. .

Intrepid Companion was delighted to discover charro beans, a relative rarity on menus in the region, “slow-cooked to perfection with bacon and slices of sausage, the good old country way.” And though they didn’t reach her “gold” standard — set at an unidentified Hot Springs restaurant — she enjoyed them. We appreciated it even more to see that the kitchen replaced them with their refried bean soup side and didn’t charge us the menu price of $4.99.

We can highly recommend the Carnitas de Mar y Tierra ($14.99), marinated and roasted pork tips, as they were lean, flavorful and tender – right before melting in your mouth, yes, but much more. close to that we’ve had here (too many overcooked carnitas with nasty toughness). And the portion, which we were able to take away, was almost too big to finish. It also comes with rice, beans, and a small salad topped with a soft, unimpressive guacamole.

We felt compelled to try some seafood, with mixed results. The Seafood Fajitas ($16.99) included shrimp, tiny scallops and rolled surimi (the menu says crabmeat, but of course it’s expensive, so instead we get quasi-crab ) on a not quite sizzling pan with peppers, onions and tomatoes. There was a pleasant aftertaste that accumulated on the back of the tongue but overall we weren’t particularly impressed. We also weren’t terribly impressed with the bland Quesadilla Seafood ($12.99), a toasted flour tortilla wrapping “crab meat,” much larger shrimp and scallops with the same vegetables as in the fajitas.

The menu is full of other options, including nine chicken dishes, seven steak dishes, nine versions of fajitas, three soups, a range of Ranchero Specials (“our most popular dishes,” the menu says, although it doesn’t don’t provide many details in the description), a range of vegetarian options, enchiladas, tacos, chimichangas, burritos, and a surprisingly long list of desserts (including, to Intrepid Companion’s delight, ice cream fries, which also she says were hard to find around here; something else to try on a future visit as we were far too full for dessert this time) .

Service was exceptionally friendly, as mentioned, both at the table and for take-out orders, although we did have a few minor issues with our meal there, perhaps due to things being lost in translation – two people in the group asked for flour tortillas with their starters, while one asked for corn tortillas, and all three got flour. And we were not offered refills on our soft drinks.

Mar y Tierra Cantina & Grill

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