Sometimes it seems like all you need to say about a restaurant is: "This is the kind of place that has license plates on the walls." It signals that the joint is unpretentious, fun and inexpensive. And though the food is fine, the Food Network won't be calling anytime soon.
Funky Baja's Cantina, located in a decidedly unfunky strip center on Keller Parkway, is that kind of place. It has license plates, album covers, bottle caps and a giant peace sign on the walls, not to mention pictures of bikini-clad beach bunnies. It conjures up a funky beachside dive vibe, even if the nearest body of water is Bear Creek.
And it gets some authenticity from its lengthy bar, which is the most striking feature as you walk in, partly because it's not the kind of thing you would have seen even five years ago in Keller, where recent changes in alcohol laws have made things more bar-friendly.
The other part of the vibe here comes from all the tributes to lucha libre, the genre of pro wrestling that became popular in Mexico in the 1930s. Many of the menu items (tacos, burritos, burgers and sandwiches) are named after the masked luchadores that were big in the genre.
Tacos (aka "$3 freakin' tacos"), for instance, bear such names as Fishman and El Santo, the former a luchador who went on to win some World Wrestling Federation weight-class championships, the latter a famed wrestler who appeared in more than 60 movies.
Tacos we sampled include the Fishman, where the shredded cabbage dominated two small strips of crunchy-crusted, beer-battered tilapia, and the spicy pico pina and "Baja sauce" were more stealthy than tongue-attacking; El Campeon, a combo of Negra Modelo-marinated brisket, avocado, grilled onions and poblano peppers that got a big boost from its generous melting of asadero cheese; and El Rudo, one of the restaurant's few vegetarian options, a black-bean taco in which the too-soupy beans were saved by their well-seasoned kick.
The Fishman and El Campeon came on flour tortillas, which were toasted just right, giving the base some crispiness while maintaining soft edges; they were significantly larger than the by-request corn tortillas that attempted to envelop the El Rudo.
All the burgers are $5 and come with some kind of heat, whether it's the pico de gallo on the Cavernario (patty, bacon, cheddar cheese, fried egg, no other veggies) or the habanero on the Averno, which the menu warns you not to order if you're a "wussy." We tried the Tonina Jackson, which comes with cheddar cheese, grilled onions, jalapeños, bacon, tomato, lettuce and pickles. (All burgers come on a poppy-seed bun.)
The patty flirted with being too dry, and if this is all the heat the jalapeños can muster, bring on the Averno. But the bacon was a star, crackling and flavorful. (Tonina Jackson was a '50s-era luchador who made several movies; the Internet Movie Database mistakenly refers to him as an actress.)
We also tried the El Cubanito ($5), a Cuban sandwich that succeeded more as a sandwich than as a Cuban sandwich. The hot-pressed hoagie bread had a toasty crunch (Funky Baja's is very good at crunch), but the slow-roasted pork overwhelmed the ham, pickles and mustard that are essential Cuban-sandwich ingredients -- only the Swiss cheese was able to fight its way through.
Fries, available for $1.75, were OK but unexciting both times we tried them. Chips, salsa and queso ($5) benefited from sturdy tortilla chips and smoky roasted salsa with sneak-up-on-you heat; the queso was a little thin for our taste but it also had a nice, slow-burn kick.
Guacamole ($1.50) was an avocado-lover's delight, smooth and thick, but if you want something else to assist the avocado, it was a bit of a disappointment.
Funky Baja's comes from the same people who own a number of other Northeast Tarrant spots (Baja Grill in Grapevine and Watauga, Baja's Bar and Grill in Southlake, El Taco H and Peace Burger in Grapevine), and it is obvious they are going after the Fuzzy's crowd ("our tacos funk Fuzzy's," says a comment on its Facebook page). The food, however, was a little uneven.
Funky Baja's does score points with its hangout appeal, though, and on a stretch of road with more than its share of fast-food taco joints, it's a competitively priced, home-grown option that's worth checking out.
Robert Philpot, 817-390-7872