The surrounding area may look like urban development ushered in via H-bomb. And the ripped-to-shreds roadways running parallel to the place have probably warded off more foot traffic than a predatory sinkhole.
But those daring enough to dodge lumbering construction vehicles and navigate suspect parking conditions don’t seem to mind the added hassle once they’ve dropped anchor at Cantina Marina.
The seasonal retreat at 600 Water St. SW first popped onto the scene back when crowded seafood buffets and warm, sticky rum buns still ruled the Southwest Waterfront. Now, it’s almost all that remains along the desolate stretch of Maine Avenue that’s been hollowed out to make room for the sprawling Wharf project.
Still, the jam-band hosting (Rep. Collin C. Peterson, D-Minn., and The Second Amendments graced the stage there last summer.), Racing Presidents’ baiting watering hole appears content to temporarily whisk Washingtonians away from the hustle and bustle of #ThisTown.
There appear to be plenty of takers.
Depending on the day, the hour and, quite often, one’s tolerance for ultraviolet rays, the main bar may be crawling with freewheeling lobbyists, GOP leadership aides, hospitality industry professionals or all of the above.
“I’ve already had a couple drinks and I’ve been smoking weed all day,” a visiting server alerted the Cantina Marina bartender when she quizzed an off-duty pal about his plans for the afternoon.
“You’re more than welcome to hang out and join us. I’m about to order two tacos,” another self-styled slacker — who strolled in toting a fresh bottle of SPF 30 sunscreen — informed his mother after she rudely interrupted a developing bender by blowing up his cellphone.
There are folks undoubtedly looking for escape (we’re looking at you, shades-wearing loner with your wrinkled dress shirt unbuttoned to mid-chest, nursing tallboy after tallboy of Dos Equis), while others — including the chain-smoking, heavily tattooed couple with a chill white pit bull in tow (she got paraded around as soon as other patrons spotted the friendly pooch), as well as the nattily dressed couple introducing friends to their favorite relaxation techniques (the prescription: a steady diet of CoronaRitas) — come in search of community.
Local wildlife certainly can’t stay away. One night, a pair of peckish mallards, water still beading on the lead one’s shimmery green crown, waddled right over to the table in search of charity — until a brindle Plott Hound sitting nearby reared his head and chased away the intruders.
An upstairs perch tends to remain pet-free. Instead, patrons can feast their eyes on novelty signage (including a clock indicating it’s perpetually 5 p.m.) or the school of rainbow-colored fish dangling above a central staircase, forever frozen mid-swim.
The menu, now officially in its teens, appears to have evolved a bit through the years.
Gone are the muffulettas and Asian-style spare ribs hired mouth Tom Sietsema encountered more than a decade ago when he visited the newly minted eatery on behalf of The Washington Post.
Tex-Mex and Louisiana-style cooking continue to dominate the carte, as do seafood offerings. Daily specials run the gamut from head-on, barbecue shrimp bathed in Cajun butter sauce to soft flour tortillas stuffed with seared duck breast, tangy hoisin sauce and piquant scallions.
Orbs of shredded crab, jumbled with diced onions and sweet peppers and fried to a golden brown, whet the appetite — particularly when swirled in a citrus-spiked remoulade.
Squid spits fire after rolling around with a medley of Thai chili peppers. A simple breading adds crunch to the sea of rings and tentacles placed before you. The minced chilies ignite random bites, while lemony tartar sauce soothes the burn.
Patrons are encouraged to mix and match their taco cravings; orders can feature a pair or trio of signature eats composed of grilled tilapia, shrimp, chicken, steak or a guest protein.
Shrimp-filled numbers proved most satisfying, the plump crustaceans marrying well with the zesty onions and herbaceous cilantro folded into the surrounding shell. A partial scoop of pico de gallo (excellent tomato) overwhelmed the tilapia taco, the mild fish disappearing beneath waves of acid and spice.
Blackened red snapper is much bolder. The generously seasoned filet emerges from the grill with caramelized flesh but flaky meat. The house rub delivers flavorful blasts of black pepper, garlic and paprika. A sesame-seeded roll holds it all together, while house-made kettle chips — dusted with a spicy-sweet coating — round out the hearty meal.
A heaping bowl of crawfish étouffée is enough for two meals (or one gluttonous display). The tender tails swim in a gravy-like roux that smacks of slowly simmered tomatoes, celery and onion. Slurping down each spoonful of soupy grains only inspires one to plunge back into the dish for another. At least it did for this fan of Cajun cuisine.
What to wash everything down with presents an entirely different set of calculations.
Taking advantage of happy hour deals (discounted session beers and such) can certainly help keep costs low. But there’s something to be said for shelling out a little extra for a crisp, refreshing Shiner Ruby Redbird, the finest grapefruit- and ginger-fueled lager the Lone Star State has to offer.
Some of my new favorite mixed drinks also happen to live behind the bar.
The Strongballs, for instance, immediately called out to this cider lover. Cantina Marina tweaks the fruit-powered cooler by cutting it with cinnamon-flavored liqueur (Fireball), producing a dangerously delicious thirst quencher with a whiskey kick.
Spicy ginger leaps right out of the glass when one raises the Austin Skinny Mule to the lips. Here, Tito’s vodka is doctored with lime juice and diet ginger beer, yielding a citrusy concoction that goes down smooth and begs to be refilled. Repeatedly.
“Come back when you’re ready to have some margaritas,” one bartender urged as we began wandering back toward the real world — her siren song a poignant reminder that life is better when you’re on a permanent vacation.
Cantina Marina: 600 Water St. SW; 202-554-8396; cantinamarina.com. Average entree: $13 to $20 ($$). Open for lunch and dinner daily.