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Union Cantina

Al Parker - December 6th, 2010
Union Cantina offers South of the Border style
By Al Parker
You might say restaurant entrepreneur Matt Davies has come full circle.
“I started early on (in the restaurant business) at Taco Ed’s in
Findley, Ohio,” says Davies, an Ohio native whose family summered in
Northern Michigan when he was a boy. “I was just a kid.”
Now the energetic Davies is running Union Cantina, his own Mexican
eatery that opened in Traverse City in October. It’s a family run
operation along with Matt’s wife Patty, brother Mark and his wife
Union Cantina sits in the former Taylor Printing building on Union
Street between Front and State Streets. Davies originally planned to
open in the spring, but renovation efforts took longer than
“We gutted it from floor to ceiling – all three floors,” explains
Davies. “In addition to the main floor, we have a private dining room
that seats about 40 upstairs and we use the basement for storage.”
Davies did an impressive job of turning a 1960s style print shop into
a 21st century Mexican eatery that seats 90 in comfort.
The flooring was all redone, using reclaimed materials whenever
possible. He had the walls stripped of its drywall, exposing aged
brickwork that enhances the casual rustic atmosphere. Strands of dried
red peppers hang from sturdy beams that flank the impressive bar and a
cozy rear corner.
“Those beams came out of local barns,” says Davies, who personally
hauled them out of some tumbled-down barns in Antrim County. “Then I
pulled out all the nails and power washed them. We’ve had a lot of
compliments about how they look.”

Colorful artwork and large framed photos of Pablo Picasso, Pancho
Villa and an assortment of bandito-types line the walls. It all adds
to the casual vibe that has proven popular with visitors so far, says
Guests are greeted by an impressive stained glass door created by
Guido Gold-Kuhle, while local metal artist Matt Coffey’s work adds
greatly to the earthy ambience. But while visitors may enjoy the laid
back scene, it’s really the food that has garnered the most comments.
“We had a fairly smooth opening and things have been going very well,”
says Davies. “Our fish tacos have proven very popular and the stuffed
poblanos too.”
Union Cantina offers about a dozen appetizers, including those tasty
poblano peppers stuffed with tomato couscous and topped with cheese.
There’s an assortment of quesadillas and nachos, along with coconut
shrimp, deep fried chicken strips and an intriguing sampler plate.
Every day there’s Lone Star Chili and Tortilla Soup.
Salad lovers can choose from Taco, Fajita or Harvest Salads, all
available with southwest ranch, honey Dijon, cherry or house
vinaigrette, tequila lime or cilantro dressings.
As expected, Union Cantina offers a variety of tacos, burritos,
fajitas, enchiladas, chimichangas, tamales, and tostadas. Prices range
from $4.95 to $16.95. There’s also seven different combo plates,
ranging in price from $4.95 to $9.95.
If you’re in a steak mood, there’s a grilled-to-order 16-ounce Texas
T-bone served with chipotle cream mashed potatos and carmelized
peppers and onions ($22.95). The menu also features Cherrywood Smoked
Ribs that are smoked in-house, smothered in a secret sauce and served
with rice. A half-rack is $12.95, while a full slab is $18.95.
Davies is quick to credit his 30-member staff with Union Cantina’s
early success. Chef Matt Fries oversees the kitchen with assistance
from Jeremy Stanley. They use no canned foods and prepare only natural
organic beef and chicken.

One of the most popular ala carte items on the menu is the Estupendo
Burrito, an enormous feast for the heartiest of appetitites. It comes
in shredded beef, chicken or pork rolled in a large flour tortilla
with refried beans, cheese, guacamole, sour cream, rice, lettuce and
tomato ($8.95). For another $1.50 you can make it wet with enchilada
sauce and cheese.
We’ve been pleased with all our burritos,” notes Davies. “But the
Estupendo Burrito is really something – it’s as big as a baby”
The Davies family operates a string of Northern Michigan eateries,
including the Peninsula Grill and Bad Dog Deli on Old Mission
Peninsula that they bought in 1999. Four years later they opened the
Riverwalk Grill in Elk Rapids. In 2005 they added the Western Avenue
Grille in Glen Arbor and a year later, Graystone Farm Catering.

Union Cantina, at 127 Union Street in Traverse City, is open Sunday
through Thursday 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 11:30 a.m.
to 11 p.m. For more information or takeout orders, call (231) 941-5038
or go to

  • Currently 3.5/5 Stars.
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