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story.lead_photo.caption The Carnitas at Cantina Cinco de Mayo are tender, lean and come in a huge portion with rice and refried beans. - Photo by Eric E. Harrison

Mexican restaurants in Little Rock fall into one of three categories.

There's Tex-Mex or Ark-Mex, American-Mexican or "Southwestern" -- think Heights Taco & Tamale, Local Lime or The Fold. There's Mexican-American -- Mexican food, maybe even made and served entirely by Mexicans, which takes it easy on gringos; Senor Tequila and La Hacienda are the most prominent examples.

And there's Mexican-Mexican, where the staff speaks little or no English and the mostly Latin clientele speaks perhaps even less.

One fairly easy-to-read sign: what kinds of tacos the restaurant serves, and how much it charges for them.

Cantina Cinco de Mayo No. 3 took over the former Jerky's Chicken on Center Street in downtown Little Rock -- and in time to celebrate Cinco de Mayo. And it's certainly nice to have a downtown Mexican restaurant that stays open nights and weekends.

The four-restaurant, central Arkansas mini-chain falls firmly in that middle classification. This, Restaurant No. 1 on Rahling Circle in west Little Rock, No. 2 on Stagecoach Road in far southwest Little Rock and No. 4 in Benton all share a menu and what appears to be a nonworking website -- -- but have separate Facebook pages.

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Photos by Eric Harrison

The staff at No. 3, at least on the floor, is entirely Hispanic and most speak pretty good English, but there's that menu segment labeled "Mexican Tacos and Tortas, on which four "Mexican tacos" are $10, much better and less expensive than some places. And the mariachi band that played for the recent grand opening mostly played tunes like "La Cucaracha" and "La Bamba" with which gringos and gringas, who made up the vast majority of the grand-opening clientele, could happily sing along.

Not that there's anything wrong with that. It's possible, even easy, to please a wide range of customers with this style of food if it's done properly. And some of what we had at Cantina Cinco de Mayo No. 3 was done very properly, and we'd happily order those dishes again. But we'd say that on some things, the kitchen employs perhaps too high a degree of caution and not a high enough degree of flavor.

The decor downtown is pretty much standard: various hacienda- and church-type scenes painted onto the bright, pastel-colored walls plus an occasional sombrero for accent. Seating is at sturdy tables and black metal, black-vinyl-padded chairs. Stairs rise to a mostly unused balcony that provides overflow seating. Three large screen TVs, one over the bar, two in the dining room, carry mostly sports programming. Soundtrack is up-tempo Latin pop at a volume level low enough that you don't have to shout, as we did over that mariachi band at the grand opening.

Firm, crisp tortilla chips with a small bowl for each diner accompany a pour-yourself flask of the complementary red salsa, which is slightly chunky with onions but doesn't have much zip.

We got no additional chips with any of our three dip appetizers -- in ascending order of worthwhile-ness, cheese dip ($3.50 small, just enough for one, $5.95 large), which had a little bit of heat but not much flavor; guacamole ($3.50 small, $5.95 large), made to order but not at the table, it was rather oniony and got spicier as we got closer to the bottom of the quasi-stone bowl; and the really enjoyable Chori-Queso ($6.95), cheese dip sprinkled with ground chorizo sausage and served on a hot skillet with foil-wrapped hot flour tortillas -- three flour tortillas, which is tough to divide between two people. (Our waiter brought at our request, at no additional charge but with a wait of a couple of minutes, a separately wrapped extra tortilla.)

Also on our "recommended -- yes, we'd order this again" list:

• Mexican Tacos ($9.99), four small corn tortillas with fillings -- the menu lists steak, chicken, Mexican sausage or carnitas, all topped with onion and cilantro. Flour tortillas available on request.

But deep within the menu description is the phrase "with your favorite meat," so we ordered our favorite, al pastor, barbecue pork with chunks of pineapple. All four tacos came piled pretty high, the meat was tasty and very slightly sweet from the pineapple, which the onions and cilantro complemented but did not overwhelm. The plate also bore little garnish bowls of pico de gallo and an inoffensive but not especially perky green tomatillo salsa that we felt we didn't need.

• The Carnitas ($10.49), perhaps the tenderest and leanest and largest portion of marinated and roasted pork of our recent experience, served in easily manageable, in chunks below-mouth-size, which was nice because we never had to employ our knife.

On our not-so-recommended list:

• The enormous Juanito Burrito del Mar ($10.95), a firm flour tortilla wrapping a soupy conjunction of medium-size shrimp, chunks and shreds of grilled tilapia, green bell pepper strips and pieces, chopped tomatoes and onions, half of it topped with a thin onion-tomato salsa and half with the house queso. We expected a bit more spice than we got, and the seafood-to-vegetable ratio was a bit too far on the side of the tomatoes and peppers. The menu doesn't mention it, but it comes, not with typical Mexican rice and refried beans, but with a lighter rice mixed with corn and spinach and a carrot-cauliflower-broccoli medley.

• The marinated chicken in the Chicken Enchiladas ($8.49) was pretty good, but it came topped with a fairly thick layer of queso that was too rich for Intrepid Companion, and actually cheesier than the mariachi band's playlist.

• And the Taco Salad ($8.49) -- well, meh. The beef had very little flavor, the whole thing had very little kick and the shell was slightly burnt.

We didn't indulge in any of the restaurant's alcoholic offerings, but it has a full bar, including frozen margaritas and sangria, with glass and pitcher specials during happy hour and all-day Sunday.

Service was almost universally good -- food came out of the kitchen in short order and, with one exception where our entrees hit the table before we'd finished our appetizer, in good time.

Weekend on 04/19/2018

Cantina Cinco de Mayo No. 3

Address: 521 Center St., Little Rock

Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday

Cuisine: Mexican

Credit cards: V, MC, AE, D

Alcoholic beverages: Full bar

Carryout: Yes

(501) 400-8194

Print Headline: Celebrate Cinco de Mayo on Center

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