Gina's Reviewed
47 Skinner St. Nanaimo
For Reservations or Takeout
Mon-Thu 11–8ish
Friday 11–9ish
Saturday 12–9ish
Sunday 12–8ish

Gluten/Dairy Free Options Available

Nachos Supremos at Gina's Mexican Cafe Nanaimo BC

Gina's Mexican Cafe has been a staple of great food in Nanaimo since 1986.

Technicolor Tortilla Heaven Sits Atop Cliff

4.5 / 5 stars

47 Skinner St., Nanaimo

Major credit cards and Interac accepted.
Wheelchair access available.
Please phone ahead for details.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a technicolour house perched on the edge of a cliff must be worth a million. I first dropped into Gina’s Mexican Cafe years ago, after its loud jumble of blue-and-pink paint above the traffic caught my eye as I wound my way through downtown Nanaimo. In subsequent visits, I encountered service that ranged from adequate to really good, but the food was always amazing — an effective boost for a jaded palate in dreary winter months, and the perfect excuse for another icy beer during the summer. Sadly, during a badly needed pit stop several years ago, a friend and I had both mediocre food and service, promptly ending the Pavlovian response that normally occurred each time I neared the Harbour City’s core. After a couple of recent visits, however, I’m pleased to say the, thought of a trip up Island has me drooling again.

Gina’s is brilliantly tacky, festooned with multicolored lights and a wealth of Mexican knick-knacks, but remnants of the original house remain. Bare fir floors and fireplace tiles in the main seating area hint at what was once the centre of a family home, details now almost unnoticed in a room where interior hues are more Matisse than Martha Stewart. Sliding into a seat on what was once a porch — now vividly toned alcove with clapboard walls — I watched the sun drop behind Mount Benson, munching on the house freebie of tortilla chips and finely diced salsa and easing my parched throat with a Margarita. I kept my fingers crossed.

For the uninitiated, "gringo" cards on each table explain the Mexican and Tex-Mex dishes. Portions are generous and the overall taste is homemade, with layers of flavour. Add in low prices and friendly staff and it’s no wonder Gina’s remains a favourite of local residents after 20 years.

A relatively short, no-nonsense list of antojitos or appetizers is a good place to begin. Perfect for groups, nachos come in small and large sizes ($6.95 to $14.50 topped your choice of spiced pinto beans, beef, chicken or shrimp. A quartet of crispy flautas — cigarillo-shaped roll-ups stuffed with shrimp — will set you back a mere $7.25, as will a dish of guacamole. That may seem a little steep for this simple avocado paste, but it won't when you taste it. Unlike the horrible versions you get for a dollar a tablespoon when you order nachos at your local pub, Gina’s version has texture and tastes alternately buttery and nutty, with notes of lemon and garlic.

I had been walking along the water and was a little chilled so I pondered the soup of the day — chipotle beef — before deciding on prawns coriander. With a salad, this would have been a meal in itself, but I didn’t know that when I ordered it. Once it arrived, I decided to leave half to save room for the entree I had ordered. That was the plan, anyway. Faced with six large prawns bathed in a thick sauce of reduced cream, butter and freshly chopped coriander on a bed of perfectly cooked and lightly seasoned long grain rice, I had no willpower.

Main courses feature the expected, as well as some interesting deviations from the Mexican-Restaurant-in-Canada menu. Try a burrito made with a whole-wheat tortilla filled with spinach, grilled chicken and chipotle for $9.75, or shrimp and halibut for $10.95. Chili Rellenos features the relatively mild Anaheim variety stuffed with cream cheese, fried and served on a bed of rice with a trio of salsas: rich, red salsa ranchero, the slightly piquant salsa verde and dark salsa mole, packed with the flavours of nuts and cocoa. If you’re fighting off the effects of a late night, huevos rancheros — scram­bled eggs baked with ranchero salsa and served with house beans, spiced corn, fresh fruit and a warm tortilla — will sort you out in no time.

Pam Grant, Dining Out