By New Times
By Robrt L. Pela
By Lauren Saria and Heather Hoch
By Deborah Sussman
By Robrt L. Pela and Amy Silverman
By Kathleen Vanesian
By Eric Schaefer
By Heather Hoch
The Cantina variety pack is a three-bowl salsa sampler. The picante sauce is a thick, dark red paste that smears well across the chips and has a bit of a bite. The salsa verde sauce with jalapeños and tomatillos is even hotter, blended down into a bright green liquid that lightly coats your chip. The bright-orange coloring of the salsa arbol should serve as a warning flag that this is lethally hot stuff. In fact, it should be renamed salsa Chernobyl for its nuclear meltdown power.
Our servers were outstanding. They knew the menu and were adept at patiently explaining the vocabulary of Mexican food to people who don't know a taco from a nacho. On the recommendation of the server, I ordered up one of the house specialties -- Mexican Gulf shrimp. Sautéed with rich chipotle butter, the shrimp were good and not overcooked. Two fried plantain strips added a potato-chip-like crunch to the plate. The presentation was lovely, with a bright yellow sauce over the shrimp.
The traditional chile relleno is always a good standard of measurement for Mexican restaurants. Depending on the skill of the chef, a relleno can range from a heavy, batter-coated lump to a fluffy, effervescent floating cloud of delicious textures. The rellenos I ordered fell into the first category. The Cantina special rellenos plate offered a shredded-pork-stuffed relleno with a cheese relleno. Both were wrapped in a thick, tasteless batter, and the pork filling was dry and unappealing. The tomato chorizo and the tomatillo sauces promised on the menu sounded intriguing, but I found only a dab of each under the rellenos, not enough to reveal their flavors.
34505 N. Scottsdale Road
Scottsdale, AZ 85266
Region: North Scottsdale
Searching the menu for a chimichanga, it took me a while to find one. That's because it's called chicken Yucat#aacute;n. Cantina chefs have also given the stuffing a little different twist by adding mushrooms, cheese and onions to the shredded chicken. Everything was wrapped in a flour tortilla, coated with egg batter and fried. It was an austere take on the chimi, with the crispy coating overwhelming all the other flavors.
The specials of the day turned out to be the best options. On one visit, I was enamored of the chile-rubbed fresh salmon. Topped with a mushroom salsa and accompanied with pinto beans, it was everything I had hoped for. Perfectly prepared, the salmon pairs the slap-your-face chile flavor with the sweetness of the cooked mushroom salsa. One of the joys of authentic Mexican cuisine is the preparation of fresh seafood with traditional seasonings. The kitchen is on the right track with this dish.
A scrumptious chicken mole was the special on another visit. With its rich, dark reddish-brown sauce and tender shredded chicken, this mole compared favorably with any other Mexican restaurant in town. The thick chocolate-based sauce was rich without being sweet. Matched with large chunks of white meat, it's a recipe worth the drive.
I love chili verde passionately, and the enormous Cantina bowl of green, bulging with tender pork, exceeded my expectations. Served with warm flour tortillas, this is a terrific meal by itself.
Also available is a bowl of chili con carne. Based on a Texas recipe, this is a beanless, all-beef approach to the traditional bowl of red. It's bold and hearty. The kitchen uses this chili as a topping on some of the entrees. You'll find it dressing up the tamales and even some of the enchiladas.
The chicken and avocado salad needs just a bit of culinary attention to be excellent. The papaya-avocado salsa and the tomato-cumin vinaigrette was flawless, but the chicken had been scorched a tad too long. The spicy pecans placed around the plate like the numbers on a clock are a beautiful touch.
Between the daily specials and the house specialties, it would be easy to overlook the combination plates. But they're worth looking into. They're big and messy and very good. The No. 1 combo was a plate heaped with a rich cheese enchilada, a crispy chicken taco and a big, fat, shredded pork tamale topped with the chili con carne. The combinations are varied and respectful of the traditional approaches -- all excellent values.
For a novel take on authentic recipes, the Cantina menu offers a few items for guests of the Golden Door Spa, located up the hill in The Boulders Resort. Certain entrees are marked with a symbol that represents cooking techniques designed to lower the amount of fat in the dishes. While I'm not normally a fan of lean cuisine, the whole pinto bean burro, filled with steamed vegetables, makes me rethink the concept. The burro was surprisingly good. The menu brags that it has only 342 calories and three grams of fat, making it a smart choice for those counting such things. Perhaps this dish proves that Mexican food can balance healthful preparation with maximum flavor.
Another option for spa patrons is the vegetarian fajitas. Someone has given this item some thought, adding nice veggie surprises like roasted corn and mushrooms, along with broccoli, yellow squash and sweet peppers. Accompanied by corn tortillas instead of the usual flour, the corn adds a nice authentic touch while also lowering the fat content.