Arriba Cantina Cocina Mexican cantina restaurant at Bohicket Marina needs time to flesh out

Burrito bowl

When I was growing up, many of my aunts had a plaque (and some had a trivet) in their kitchens. It read, “No matter where I serve my guests, they seem to like my kitchen best.” Today that quote continues to resonate when I see friends and family gather in the kitchen while great rooms, libraries and family rooms are abandoned for what many call the “heart of the home.”

David and Elizabeth Woodworth, Seabrook Island residents who recently opened a Mexican cantina and cocina at Bohicket Marina, embrace those sentiments.

For the Woodworths, the kitchen is where life happens. It’s where memories are made and loved ones gather.

David Woodworth has served as a chef in properties located in Florida and Virginia. Elizabeth Woodworth was the general manager for Posh, a boutique hotel and events center in Asheville, and worked in food and beverage.

Together, with some encouragement from their Seabrook Island neighbors and friends, they embarked on establishing a cantina-style Mexican restaurant at Bohicket Marina.

Arriba Cantina Cocina is located on the second level above the Ice Cream Boat. It features a protected deck and cantina bar and a modest-size restaurant and bar skirting the hexagon-shape room. Its name comes from the Spanish for “up.”

The Woodworths have used Mexican tiles, folk art animals, Talavera-like ceramics, wall sconces and colorful pottery to embrace the culture of Mexico and imprint their cantina with a pleasing palette mirroring the beauty of Mexican turquoise shimmering in the coastal Carolina sun.

The trip up the stairs has a traditional banco feel to it and the Talavera tiles cast a pedestrian staircase with an inspired handcrafted edge.

Glass fishing floats, ceramic lanterns and strings of white light surround the festive outdoor deck with its colorful red chairs, neon orange bar stools and the cooling comfort of sturdy, blue glassware. Andale, fiesta is the message.

The dining room’s calm lemon-lime walls and aquamarine trim anchored with chalk-white painted mismatched chairs and tables speaks to both comfort and casual. The bar area was personally stenciled by Elizabeth Woodworth and the modern, abstract art by David Woodworth’s mother, Jane Woodworth, strikes notes of sophistication and complexity in the simply decorated restaurant.

Sunsets are not to be missed and the traffic of nautical life presents its own vicarious entertainment and promenade.

Arriba takes no reservations. You can call ahead for seating and at premium times expect a wait. The good news is the deck bar comes with a view and the margarita menu is plentiful.

The Woodworths were drawn to the foods of Mexico but also planned to spin their recipes in a Southern latitude.

The menu itself is limited. Sunday brunch has just been added and daily specials are appearing with regularity. The majority of the tacos, quesadillas and burritos are a la carte. A simple condimento of shredded lettuce topped with guacamole and diced tomatoes garnishes each plate. Expect no combination plates. So, if beans and rice are your default companions with Latin foods, prepare to pay for that.

The kitchen takes pride in producing their own corn tortillas and grows many of the vegetables used in their salsas.

In fact, they have a salsa bar for you convenience but it straddles the host station and extends into the traffic flow for exiting the restaurant. Good idea, challenging location. Most of the salsas are not energized by the heat of chiles; their swagger comes from the freshness of ingredients, so hit up the Cholula to amp up the Scovilles.

Starters include a basic guacamole unfettered by tomatoes or cilantro and a queso dip that was more like cheese soup than a dip; abandoned by spices, pico, poblanos and tomatoes. It found its mettle as it cooled but added no spark to the thickly cut chips. Chips and salsa are complementary and straddle the crunchy, salty, tart continuum symbiotic to a cold beer or well-made margarita. Here they succeed.

Seared scallops are their signature starter and are simply pan-seared and served on guacamole and a crisped tortilla. Elote, the popular Mexican street corn, did not hit the mark. The flavor of the corn was off: chewy and tasteless and a stark contrast to our local farmers market fare. Yet the chili rub and cheese “rain” were very good. Just ask for a lime wedge to refresh the corn kernels.

The bandwidth of Mexican cooking at Arriba adheres to a narrow menu of tacos, burrito bowls, taco salads and quesadillas. With all of the wonderful seafood available to us, not to mention squash, zucchini, okra and clams, it would seem that the Woodworths would want to sail over tradition and move beyond well-intentioned Tex-Mex, Amer-Mex dishes. That has not happened yet.

Their website claims that the “recipes are authentic and time-tested.” Over all, I had a problem with ratio and that is my biggest criticism of Arriba: the quantity of chips to salsa; the amount of filling in a taco; the layers of slaw, crema and pico on fish; the slighting of carnitas with onion, cilantro and queso fresco.

I have never been a fan of a burrito bursting its seams, but I expect that a taco would be judiciously lined with enough filling to have meat in every bite. This was not our experience at Arriba. Portion size is easy to fix as the carnitas had a succulence bred of slow cooking and the mahi had a sweetness hooked by freshness.

There is ambition at Arriba but not fineness.

Time is on their side. The Woodworths bring their passion, the community brings its appetite and Bohicket Marina brings a little hamlet of summertime activities that will ensure Arriba the cantina can truly be Arriba the restaurant.