Mezcal and modern Mexican street food in the heart of Bourbon Country. That was Alex Rodriguez’s vision when he opened Zapata Cantina in downtown Covington last fall. And while there’s no shortage of local options for margaritas and tacos, Zapata Cantina’s take on Mexican cuisine stands apart from the crowd.
Order an Oaxaca Old Fashion or Negroni Especial from the menu of smoky mezcal–focused cocktails to wash back a spread of fresh ceviche and chips or one of eight innovative taco options. Our favorites are the Del Mar (tempura shrimp with candied pecans and honey chipotle sauce), the Revolucion (Impossible meat with potatoes, cheese, and avocado), and the Alejandro (a Hibiscus flower birria with rice, guac, and radishes)—all of which are served on freshly made corn tortillas.
Zapata Cantina also has the classics covered. Try the draft house margarita, chips and warm queso, or the giant steak burrito. The massive Torta Milanesa is one of the most popular dishes; it’s a breaded chicken cutlet sandwich topped with avocado, black bean puree, queso fresco, lettuce, and tomato.
All food items are scratch made with fresh ingredients—without a freezer in sight. Rodriguez brought in Chef Robert Castañeda, a Los Angeles native, who helped popularize the pop-up restaurant concept on the West Coast, to head the kitchen. Rodriguez says he knew Castañeda could “help with the menu, and actually make it come to life.”
Why Covington? Rodriguez, whose parents opened several restaurants in Ohio, was previously living in Chicago where he worked at several high-end bars. That’s when he “saw the rise of Covington, and the special neighborhood it had,” he says, “and wanted to be a part of that growing community.”
The Cantina gets its forename from Emiliano Zapata, a major figure in the Mexican Revolution, whose portrait is displayed on the eatery’s dining room wall. There’s also a festive tiled bar, a mix of high-top booths and lower tables, and a welcoming couch that would make the perfect waiting or lounge spot in non-pandemic times.
The dining room is currently operating at 50 percent, but Rodriguez says the Cantina will expand to outdoor dining in the spring and summer, in addition to opening up a walk-up window along the Eighth Street side of the building which will offer a reduced to-go menu.
As to the local response to his new business, Rodriguez says, “Things have been really great despite the pandemic. As spring comes around the corner, we finally see that light at the end of the tunnel.”
Zapata Cantina, 801 Madison Ave., Covington, (859) 469-4041