After months of construction and speculation, and a week of soft-opening service, Antojitos Authentic Mexican restaurant officially opened to the public on February 5, 2014, as the newest dining upgrade in Universal Orlando’s ongoing CityWalk overhaul. I was among the few journalists invited to taste-test the menu last month, and since the first public seating I’ve dined there three times, including the grand opening media party. While I haven’t yet eaten everything on the menu, I have sampled enough to provide this preliminary Antojitos review, which we’ll refine as the restaurant finds its rhythm.
As you’ll instantly notice from the photographs, Universal’s replacement for the former Latin Quarter restaurant isn’t some sedate hacienda.
Antojitos’ facade features a working bell tower (listen for it to ring every hour on the hour, beginning at the nightly 5 p.m. opening) topped by a weather vane representation of “The Dude,” the restaurant’s sombrero-wearing, bicycle-riding mascot.
If you want an alfresco aperitif, a VW microbus has been converted into a full-service bar, which serves the elaborately tiled sheltered patio.
To be polite, the “Spanish Mission meets Mexico City graffiti” tie-dyed exterior is eye-poppingly intense, and the visuals are equally extreme on the inside.
Polished concrete, reclaimed hardwood, and recycled steel cables compete with neon signage and spray-painted stencils, evoking an energetic urban environment.
The open first floor is dominated by a four-sided bar on one end…
…and an elevated stage on the other.
It also features a wall-length open kitchen with a handful of stools if you wish to dine counter-side.
Don’t miss the luchador-themed kewpie doll art installation near the restrooms!
On Wednesday through Sunday nights, complimentary custom-painted masks are offered to all patrons.
It’s a festive space, but unless you snag one of the barrel-shaped booths it’s far from intimate… …
…especially once the resident mariachi band starts singing from their eclectic setlist.
And when the band isn’t on, a soundtrack starring Spanish covers of 80′s and 90′s pop may propel you back to your high school prom en español.
The servers even get in on the retro act with their jean jacket uniforms.
For a quieter meal, consider the second floor’s cozy private dining room…
…or a seat with a view on the covered balcony if it’s balmy.
Overall, Antojitos has an upbeat, energetic atmosphere that’s perfect for hanging out with friends or multi-generational families, but wouldn’t be my first choice for a romantic rendezvous or business meeting. It should provide a good transitional zone to unwind after a day of overstimulation in the theme parks, and a perfect pre-party spot before heading into Mardi Gras or Halloween events.
Antojitos takes their tequila seriously, with a list of over 200 types, and rare labels (at up to $90 per shot!) secured behind chicken-wire cages.
Universal hired an international tequila expert to educate their staff, so don’t be afraid to ask if you don’t understand the difference between reposado and añejo. They’ll serve salt and lime with your shot upon request, but the preferred way to imbibe tequila is by sipping slowly from a wide-mouthed glass.
There’s also an extensive selection of custom margaritas and other cocktails, all made with fresh-squeezed juices instead of pre-packaged mixes.
Sriracha Muchacha was hands-down my favorite margarita. Made with spicy sriracha sauce and roasted red peppers, it gives Cava de Tequila’s Jalapeno margarita a run for its money as Orlando’s best burning booze.
The Horse You Rode In On is like a tequila-based Dark & Stormy; a silky smooth and not too strong…at least until you discover the powerful brandy-soaked cherry hiding in the bottom!
Antorita is a top-shelf on-the-rocks margarita, and an excellent example of the genre, with a well-balanced blend of sweet, sour, and salty, thanks to fresh lime and nectar juice.
The mojito is also well-made if a bit weak, with freshly muddled mint an a stick of sugar cane for style points.
Handsome George was my second-favorite cocktail, thanks to the smokey/spicy mezcal. Beware, this one packs a punch.
If you aren’t into alcohol, Antojitos serves the greatest soft drink known to man: Mexican Coke, made with real sugar instead of corn syrup.
For dessert, the Highway to Heaven is pretty much lives up to its name, with an ambrosial blend of coffee liqueur, cocoa, and cream.
Antojitos literally translates as “little cravings” and means the Mexican equivalent of Spanish tapas, or small plates. So it makes sense that appetizers are the heart and soul of the menu, and your best bet when ordering. In my four visits, I’ve yet to taste a starter here that wasn’t superb, so if you stick to the first half of the menu you’ll be well fed.
Tip: don’t be afraid to order one or two dishes at a time, as your server should be happy to put in multiple orders for you.
Every visit starts with a complimentary basket of house-made tortilla chips and salsa.
The chips are lightly salted and fantastic when still warm. The salsa isn’t as spicy or chunky as some, and I’m not crazy about the green olives in it, but it does taste incredibly fresh.
If you have a group, start out with the tableside guacamole for a small show with your supper. They use two whole avocados in their dip, so you’ll have plenty to share.
You’ll get a quick lesson in guac-making, and can make special requests (like no olives). I ordered mine medium-spicy and it barely had a kick, so be sure to let your server know if you like it hot.
Esquites Asados is roasted corn-off-the-cob with queso fresco and mayo, served in a small cast iron casserole. I’ve eaten this on every visit so far, and I don’t plan on stopping any time soon!
Tamaltso Fritos take the typical tamale cornmeal stuffing and turns it into a fried ball. The fritters are fine, but I liked the slightly spicy dipping aioli even better.
Seafood Cocktail contains cooked medium shrimp and bay scallops in a slightly spicy tomato-based cocktail sauce. It wasn’t bad, but I’d much rather see an authentic citrus-cured ceviche, or at least something with a little more bite and bigger shellfish.
Pozole is a traditional pork-flavored soup. I’m used to it being more soupy, but Antojitos’ version is thickened with hominy giving it a much heavier texture. The flavor, however, is spot on, with just the right amount of rich smokiness to the stew.
The Empanada trio include beef, chicken, and mushroom fillings, each paired with an appropriate dipping sauce; the mushroom and mole are my favorites, but all are tasty (if a tad small).
While I’ve been very pleased with all the appetizers at Antojitos, the entrees have been a bit more hit or miss. Portion sizes should be adequate for all but the most American-sized appetites, but are only a moderately good value considering the $15-$20 price range. Flavors are still fresh, but seem a little more familiar than the starters, and I had issues with overdone proteins on a couple samples.
During my first visit I tasted the Guajillo Chicken, which had a flavorful pepper-rubbed skin but slightly dry meat; the jalapeño cornbread was the standout component, as were many of the other starch side dishes.
The enchiladas and tacos are all variations on the same fillings and sauces. Inside, I loved the pork carnitas, and thought the duck tasty but too heavy with rendered fat; the chicken and shrimp were both disappointingly bland and too sweet.
The mole sauce was acceptable but not as heavy on the cocoa as I’d like, while the verde heat level is too toned down (presumably to accommodate American palates).
However, the black beans and seasoned rice served on the side is absolutely stellar.
By the way, all of the above items are served on the restaurant’s ground floor. The second level, or “Antojitos Up”, has a separate kitchen and its own slightly more expensive menu with some unique entees.
The bacon wrapped shrimp I sampled, while flavorful, was a bit rubbery and tough, though the tough was worth trying for the polenta-like corn pudding.
The single best dish of opening night was the carne asada coffee rubbed ribeye, which was cooked a perfect medium-rare and hand-carved for the media by Chef Steve Jayson himself. This is one of the best steaks I’ve ever had at a theme park resort, and a bargain at $28.
Save room for sweets, because the dessert offerings here are almost as enticing as the appetizers.
The churros are exactly what you’ll find inside the parks, but the coffee creme brûlée they are served with is a winner.
Banana Bread pudding and molten de leche cake are both solid (if unspectacular), but the sour cream ice cream served with the later is tart, tangy, and terrifically addictive.
Antojitos is a welcome addition to Universal CityWalk’s line-up, and should please anyone craving creative interpretations of Mexican classics. For those who only know Taco Bell, Antojitos will be a revelation, and it compares favorably in price and quality with the area’s better ethnic restaurants. You’re likely to find me seated at the bar with salsa, starters, and a strong drink or three!