Editor’s Note: Benji’s closed in August 2016.
I often have the opportunity to write about beautiful venues and new local concepts. With my latest discovery, the food truly won me over. The proof: I waddled away after my amazing meal. So sit back and join me in my journey through the collaborative kitchen that is Benji’s Cantina.
Nestled comfortably into a corner lot in Austin’s West Sixth District, Benji’s will quickly become one of the city’s largest and most swanky Tex-Mex hot spots. But don’t let their modern approach to an old Texas favorite fool you. Their vast menu full of Mexican dishes and a wide range of beer, wine and liquor make this a great spot to feast and party during the upcoming Texas summer.
Benji’s sits atop a massive lot, with over 300 seats arranged throughout. You’ll find a formal dining room, lounge dining, front patio, and West Sixth’s only rooftop dining patio.
Two bars, one upstairs and one downstairs, are filled to the brim with a long list of adult beverage choices. While margaritas match the décor, you also have your choice of martinis, mixed specialty drinks, beer, wine, and a long list of tequila and mezcal.
You will also find a rotating tortilla grill, with house recipes for fresh corn and flour tortillas that yield a unique taste.
I made a surprise visit to Benji’s just one day after their opening on May 24, 2013. I had an opportunity to see each and every member of their staff in action. Little did I know what I was getting myself into that day. The coolest part of my experience was that, by the time I left, I felt like part of the family. I’m not sure whose family, but the hospitality I experienced does say something great about the latest in a string of successful concepts from the group that launched local favorites like Kung Fu Saloon and Brew Exchange. There’s a good possibility that my table’s choice of beverages lent a hand to our warm and fuzzy feelings, but at least everyone was hydrating.
Geoff Freeman, Managing Partner and Eddie V’s alum, is humbly marching in lead for this tremendous indoor/outdoor dining venue. He’s lending exemplary vision, high standards and exquisite quality to the location, with the help of Executive Chef Blake Keeley.
As my group began to get cozy with our server, our table was filled with tequila-driven drinks:
- La Chupacabra ($8) -a refreshing glass muddled with jalapenos and blackberries,
- Pepino Endiablabo ($10.50) – a shortie combining cucumber and jalapeno,
- And the granddaddy of Benji’s drinks: Agua de Tiburon – boasting Don Julio 1942, Cointreau, Presidente Brandy and a Grand Marnier 100 float (topping off the price point at $25)
I later got the inside scoop on the Agua de Tiburon, which appropriately translates to shark water, and most definitely lives up to its name. Freeman, Benji’s fearless leader, is lovingly nicknamed Shark and has a long history with this signature, top shelf margarita. He says this is the drink he’s been making at home for years, for friends and at parties, and everyone knows it’s his signature drink. He took the recipe and kicked it up a notch for Benji’s Cantina.
Wear Elastic Waistband Pants
Moving on to the culinary journey…The question is, how do you set yourself apart from the stream of Tex-Mex seniors that rule the Austin roost? Benji’s does it in their own unique way. Freeman made a clear and valid point that they’re not trying to outdo anyone. They’re just presenting the food the best way they know how.
That said, you’re in for a sensational treat of savory and – my favorite – a big kick of fresh jalapeno spice when you bite into some of Benji’s signature dishes. If you ask your server, you’ll quickly find that the menu is a work of love and collaboration, stemming from the belly of this sexy new concept.
After taking a swim with the Agua de Tiburon, I was ready for Queso Flameado, a sizzling griddle of cheese, chorizo and chile poblano, set ablaze with grain alcohol and presented at your table with your choice of fresh corn or flour tortillas. This plate was enough for 4-6 people and was a great starting point.
Freeman said, “We have created a menu full of food done our way. We use all parts of the best quality food we can get our hands on. It’s a great thing when you hear your supplier say he has to special order to fill your request for quality.” You will experience pasture-raised and all natural meats, as well as John Lash’s Farm to Table produce and local goods from Johnson’s Backyard Garden. The excitement about the venue, food, and drinks is highly apparent no matter which member of the staff you speak to.
The menu choices are endless and demand a return visit. But after much contemplation, we came to a decision. Large portions and fresh, made to order plates made it easy for our table to share a colorful plate of nachos loaded with beans, chicken, cheeses and sliced jalapenos.
We followed that up with a star in its own right at Benji’s Cantina: an entire pound of fajita meat. The meat was creatively delivered to the table in a cast-iron skillet, set atop a unique metal stand called an anafre that is used to store coals and keep fajita fillings sizzling hot for the entire meal. We chose tender, outside skirt steak, marinated for twelve hours, sous-vide and finished on a mesquite-infused grill for char.
The fancy getup is accompanied by a Texas-sized grilled jalapeno, Rancho Gordo beans, and fresh Mexican rice. As I mentioned before, my new found Benji’s family members guided me through the menu and steered me into a completely blissful food coma. Little did I realize, there was more to come.
Leave Sweeter Than You Arrived
Benji’s Cantina provides an inviting vibe and cool, clean décor that will pull you in right through their all-window storefront. You quickly get comfortable with the natural feel of old Mexico and creatively concocted food and drinks. Located at 716 W. 6th St., Benji’s is a Mecca for people-watching and located right in the heart of the West Sixth district.
While I was admiring the décor, we were somehow talked into not one, but two of Benji’s massive, sweet plates. The first dish, and my favorite, Abuelita Chocolate Mousse Cake, exudes classic Mexican cocoa flavors that I remember from my childhood, with just a hint of cinnamon. Good news, it’s enough to satisfy at least two people’s sweet teeth. Bad news for me is that I can’t shake the craving for another piece.
We rounded out our journey through Benji’s collaborative cantina, with Cheesecake Sopapillas. This dish was served up in a small iron skillet and piled high with vanilla ice cream. Again you can choose to take my suggestion of elastic pants, or share with a friend, but either way you will leave with a satisfied sweet tooth.
Benji’s Cantina, currently open for dinner only, will soon be open for lunch and brunch as well. Yesterday, Benji’s announced that new happy hour specials will run all day Monday and from 4-7 PM during the rest of the week. There are also plans for live music in the near future.
Are you ready to try Benji’s Cantina on W. 6th?