- STEPPING UP: Cantina Laredo was not what we're used to.
We went to Cantina Laredo in the recent downpour, our coif Gustav-ed to our head, our spouse in a ratty Red Cross Blood Donor T-shirt and our teen-ager, no modifier needed, expecting to hide our bedragglement among the blankets and sombreros and bullfighting posters. Cantina, si?
Non! Cantina Laredo is way fancier than what we were expecting. The hostesses took one look at us, looked over their shoulders at a nearly empty dining room (it was too early for civilized dining), back at us and just as we were about to note that it looked like there were plenty of free tables, they asked if we'd like a booth. We said yes, handed them our raincoats and went in — and finally it soaked in that this was a step up from what we're used to.
Black leather booths and blond wood louvers and trim and modern art. Nary a Mexican to be seen. Not the kind of place you would intentionally drop in scruffily.
A small metate and an avocado awaited us at the table. Our waiter — one of dozens lined up and ready to serve — greeted us and, in accordance with what is apparently mandatory company policy, immediately pushed the tableside-made guacamole. Talk about stepping up! For $9.50 for a dish featuring one avocado and a sprinkling of seasoning, the profit margin is heady. Guess what? There's no such thing as bad guacamole if you start with a ripe avocado. We declined and he removed temptation.
Now, we're too plebian for the salsas that came with the chips — one of them a spicy oil-based dip with black beans and another tomato-based, with a hint of whatever it is that, oddly, defines shrimp cocktail sauce (horseradish?). We'll add here that an acquaintance thought they were great, but she's more of a gourmand than we are. Pico de gallo is about as high-brow as we get.
The chips, while nothing special, were crisp and fresh and the queso, sprinkled with chili powder, was hot, hot, hot, which is how we like things, so we started warming up to the cantina.
Since we came for Mexican food we ordered from the platillos Mexicanos. Now the quality really stepped up. The Enchilada Veracruz — A tortilla wrapped around chicken, spinach, Monterey jack, cotija cheese and drenched in a tomatillo sauce — was pretty special. Though it was super-sized, we ripped through it, in no small part because we adore fresh cow's milk cheese.
Oddly — it seemed to us — the enchilada was accompanied by new potatoes and marinated green beans.
The companions ordered soft tacos, one with chorizo con huevos and the other beef. The beef caught us by surprise, since it looked like something we'd eaten many times before but was so much better.
We could have, and should have, had a margarita with our meal. There's a long list of premium tequilas. Instead we had a glass of wine; our tab came to $62, which wasn't exactly what we had in mind when we came in the door, but …
Had we been feeling dressier, we might have ordered the daily fish special, which, even if pricey at $25, is a welcome addition to the usual Tex-Mex fare. The especialidades ranged from $11.50 (a chili relleno with beef, pork, almonds and raisins) to $27 (filet mignon with portabella mushroom).
Cantina's serves brunch on Sunday and we nipped in again, about two minutes ahead of a post-church herd of 20 for brunch.
Some powerfully over-seasoned chilaquiles — braised, shredded chicken and chips in chile seasoning — was off-putting, but nicely presented with diced cantaloupe, mango and strawberry in a fried and sugared cup made of a flour tortilla. The house version of hash browns (sliced, skin-on new potatoes) was tasty, too.
Perfectly cooked was our carne asada y huevos, a slab of skirt steak topped with sauteed onions and peppers and a tasty herb sauce, with a couple of eggs cooked to order alongside. (Brunch dishes also include pan dulce, slightly sweetened rolls with a sugar glaze.)
The menu said a Bloody Mary or mimosa was included for free with brunch dishes. The Sunday booze permit is still on application. So we said, how about orange juice and a Virgin Mary? Sure, the waiter said. But he charged us for them and the early-day confusion discouraged us from trying to sort the problem out.
Tab before tip for our two brunch dishes — no sides or drinks other than the non-free free drinks — was $37, not counting tip.
But given the price point, custom touches aside, we're not sure we won't still prefer Juanita's.
207 N. University
The bar, arced and long, is quite beautiful. We can see spending a bit of time there with a margarita and some queso. The service is excellent. Watch your step departing the booths.
11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
The lunch menu is 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. weekdays; on weekends and after 3 it will cost a buck more. Credit cards accepted. No liquor on Sunday yet, though the license should be approved soon.