It’s a rainy afternoon in Steveston Village, but inside Little Mexico Cantina it always feels warm and welcoming. This friendly oasis is full of chatty tables, toe-tapping tunes, and smiling staffers who make you feel like you’re being hosted in their home.

It’s not just the ambiance that hooks hungry people here, though. Metro Vancouver isn't short of Mexican restaurants but this Richmond option serves-up a menu of authentic regional dishes from across Mexico—transporting diners far beyond the usual North American approach to the country’s cuisine.

Lorena and Carol of Little Mexico Cantina
Lorena (left) and Carol (right) of Little Mexico Cantina. | Photo: ​John Lee

But there’s more to this place than great eats in a welcoming space. A serious fire in March 2018 closed it down. And a few weeks later, owner Carol Janeczko was diagnosed with breast cancer. A double blow that would crush most businesses, this one rose phoenix-like from the ashes, relaunching stronger than ever 14 months later—just as Carol had her final round of cancer treatment.

“I always wanted to continue because I love it here. And it felt amazing to finally reopen again,” says Carol, recalling that the renovation was a huge team effort with friends and the community pitching in while her medical treatment unfolded. “Everyone saw my journey since I never wore a wig. But brick by brick we finally did it.”

New look

Wall-mounted photos in the restaurant show Carol and her crew hard at work. And the end result, she says, is even better than before. A ‘chandelier’ of star-shaped lights was imported from Mexico; tables and benches were created by a Mexican craftsman in California; and a rustic-look new canopy above the bar was made from dried grasses transported directly from Mexico.

The changes didn’t stop when she reopened, adds Carol, who works seven days a week here and who continually has ideas for further enhancements. The heated patio has matured into a great outdoor dining space over the past year, and a new live music program is currently being planned.

On the menu

But a great restaurant isn't just about looks. Food, of course, is the vital foundation. And while Little Mexico Cantina has recently redesigned its menu to make navigation easier, offering a diverse array of authentic dishes remains the kitchen’s goal. “Our menu is a roadmap of regional cuisines,” says Carol, a frequent visitor to Mexico who has learned to prepare local dishes on many of her trips.

Taco-wise, there are 19 to choose from here, ranging from grilled pork al pastor to steak-topped carne asada. The restaurant’s tacos have won multiple awards over the years, including its red snapper-topped Ensenada-style fish taco. Beyond tacos, there are also distinctive varieties of fajitas and enchiladas, plus a hearty pirata recipe from Mexico’s Monterrey area and a carne asada burrito from the north.

And while the newly revamped menu hasn’t lost any dishes, several new ones are also currently being introduced. That includes succulent birria beef tacos and chicken wings with a spicy chili kick. New desserts are also being planned to add to the restaurant’s popular fresh-made churros. 

Tacos from Little Mexico Cantina
Delicious tacos are on the menu at Little Mexico Cantina. | Photo: ​John Lee

Vegetarians are also well-served here. “A lot of Mexicans are vegetarians,” says Carol, adding that the restaurant’s delicious meat-free tacos deploy ingredients such as kale, summer squash or baby cactus. Most of the wider menu, she adds, can also be adapted for vegetarians on request.

All dishes, she adds, are made with locally-sourced ingredients combined with spices and chilies imported from Mexico. Making everything small-batch and from scratch is also the signature approach in the kitchen—and that ranges from sauces to house-made nachos to their in-house chorizo sausage.

There’s also a popular happy hour running from 3:00pm to 6:00pm here—weekends included. All beer, wines, and ciders are reduced by $1 and you can get your fill of well-priced Mexican favourites including Sol, Corona, and Pacifico. “I think our happy hour beers are the best priced in Steveston,” says Carol. “But we also make great margaritas!”

Friendly ambiance

Beyond the menu, the staff at Little Mexico Cantina also offers the kind of genuinely heartfelt welcome Carol says she regularly encounters on her visits to the country. And she describes her ever-smiling restaurant host Lorena, who hales from Mexico, as her daughter.

Between visiting every table and ensuring all her diners are happy, Lorena smiles widely and talks about the restaurant. “I’m so glad that the people who come here love the food of my country,” she says. “Many people have just one idea of what Mexican cuisine is but here you can discover there is so much more.”

That’s exactly the approach Carol has been perfecting since day one. And now that she has successfully tackled two major challenges, she’s delighted to be welcoming old friends and first-time diners again. “This is your opportunity to taste Mexico whether or not you have been there. We’ve worked hard to create a very warm and welcoming space—and I hear the food is very good, too!”

If you go

Little Mexico Cantina is located at #150 - 3131 Chatham Street. It’s open from 11:30am to 9:30pm Tuesday to Sunday, and reservations are accepted.