Your first thought concerning the "Chiles Dulces" at La Cantina might be, "Hey! Where's the cream cheese?" These jalapeños — roasted and then beer-battered and flash-fried — do look like deflated poppers. But without all that molten, insipid cheese, you can actually enjoy the crisp batter, and you can actually taste the jalapeños. The roasting, combined with the dusting of powdered sugar atop the finished product, imparts a gentle sweetness to temper, if slightly, the chiles' heat. A bowl of melted, spiced Monterey jack cheese accompanies the jalapeños, so you can approximate the popper experience if that's your thing.
With cheese or without, the "Chiles Dulces" make for a fun bar snack, the sort of dish that pairs well with an ice-cold Mexican beer or the restaurant's house margarita, made with Sauza tequila, Cointreau and fresh lime juice. They're also the sort of dish that might help distinguish this two-month-old spot in the Old Webster section of Webster Groves.
La Cantina is the latest venture from Robert Trevino, owner of Amigos Cantina in downtown Kirkwood. His new restaurant occupies the picturesque corner storefront at the intersection of North Gore Avenue and the Union Pacific tracks. You enter directly into the main dining room, an attractive space with high ceilings, hardwood floors and abundant natural light. Staircases at the back of this room lead to additional seating on both a mezzanine and a lower level. Another room on the main floor features a bar, along with booths and tables. The color scheme throughout is a warm orange-brown shade that evokes adobe.
At Amigos Cantina Trevino offers a more curated, polished take on the area's standard array of gringo-fied Mexican and Tex-Mex dishes. You can order burritos, quesadillas and chimichangas, but you'll also find crab cakes and a few other seafood dishes, and you won't find the seemingly endless list of combination specials. La Cantina differs from this not so much in content as in format. There are no appetizers or entrées, per se. Instead, Trevino wants diners to have a tapas-like experience, sharing smaller dishes among the table.
The "Chiles Dulces" are one of fifteen "Botanas Chiquitas," or little snacks. If little snacks seems redundant, consider that there are also seven "Botanas Grandes" — big snacks. These are essentially main dishes — carnitas dressed with ranchero sauce and thin jalapeño strips, for example, or sautéed shrimp in a garlic-white wine sauce topped with queso fresco — minus the side dishes that would make them a complete plate.
Besides the "Chiles Dulces," the "Botanas Chiquitas" include rich, smooth guacamole spiked with lime juice, garlic and green chiles. Queso fundido brings a thin pool of gooey queso de Oaxaca with a dollop of salsa and a few slices of poblano pepper in the center; neither addition amps up the flavor of the cheese very much, but good melted cheese is still good melted cheese. "Empanadas de Cerdo" stuff shredded pork, garlic, corn, mild chiles and onions inside a phyllo shell. The flaky result is a nice change of pace from the typical, crunchier empanada, but the interior lacks punch. A better option is what the menu labels "Queso con Cerdo," a chunky queso fundido, with queso de Oaxaca blended with roasted pork, green chiles and onions. Scooped into a corn or flour tortilla, it makes for a tasty taco.
Plump shrimp and a velvety garlic-white-wine sauce make "Camarones de Ajo" the standout among the "Botanas Grandes." The carnitas have a properly crisp exterior, but the meat lacks the depth of flavor or succulence that a long simmering in its own lard should impart. The "Fajita de Bistec" brings thin slices of bland charbroiled steak with a "spicy avocado" sauce (thin guacamole, basically) and pico de gallo.
La Cantina lists quesadillas in a separate section of the menu. These are appetizer size: four small wedges. The version I tried came with chicken, avocado, bacon and roasted red pepper. The peppers were the most pungent ingredient; the chicken could have been any meat. Tacos come as a build-your-own platter: You receive a dish with the fillings — in my case, carne asada (skirt steak marinated overnight) with sautéed onions — with tortillas and a sauce (that avocado gruel again) on the side. The menu says this can feed two to three people, which is true if the tacos are but one of several courses you order. There are exactly three tortillas and enough filling to make three modest tacos.
I doubt it's a coincidence those dishes that were essentially smaller versions of Mexican-restaurant staples left the most to be desired. The "Botanas Chiquitas," on the other hand, as straightforward as they might be, come closest to setting La Cantina apart not merely as another new Mexican restaurant but also as something new.
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