Mexico Dependent

¡Cantina! del Pedregal, 34505 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale, 480-488-0715. Hours: Lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily; Dinner, 5 to 10 p.m. daily.

The most overworked utensil in my kitchen is the blender.

As part of my never-ending search for the perfect margarita, I've burned up a number of noisy ice-grinding machines. The designs range from sleek Eurostyle to clunky retro models, from cheap garage-sale finds to expensive mail-order catalogue purchases. The one thing they have in common is their limited ability to create that frozen concoction that launched a thousand sets by cover bands.

One minute you're strumming a six-string on your front-porch swing, listening to the purring of the blender, and then suddenly there is a silence from the kitchen that means you are about to confront large chunks of ice in your salt-rimmed glass.

With the price of tequila rising as fast as the Mexican agave crop is disappearing, it's obviously cheaper to keep buying blenders and making your margaritas at home. Still, sometimes you just have to get out of the house. Here's a suggestion.

Located near the southern edge of Carefree, ¡Cantina! del Pedregal has one of the most serene settings in the Valley. Part of The Boulders Resort, the restaurant is tucked away in the posh El Pedregal shopping center, a festive village surrounded by miles of pristine desert landscape with views of the rising stones that form a dramatic backdrop. With such a picturesque setting, you immediately feel a calming sense of arrival, as though you've been transported to a tranquil new world. It's far enough away to make the trip a soothing journey, but close enough that you can return home before David Letterman reads his Top 10 list.

Although the surrounding boutiques and galleries are sophisticated, the restaurant itself is unassuming, preferring a relaxed atmosphere and unpretentious Mexican fare. The room is intimate, and the sculpted interior walls could pass as rippling adobe surfaces, dressed in mild pastel colors to complement the saltillo tile floor.

The minimalist decor is a bit odd, though: a few brightly colored blankets, a Day-Glo macramé hanging and a couple of mariachi sombreros -- exactly what a tourist might buy with $100 and 10 minutes in a Scottsdale souvenir shop. Over in the corner, a strange Teletubby-like doll with a golf club is nestled in a saguaro skeleton. Oddly enough, over successive visits, the cheesy ambiance began to grow on me as I rationalized how it represents a friendly North American fantasy of what a Mexican house might look like.

Sitting at a table, we were greeted promptly with warm multicolored chips and salsa and an invitation to order margaritas. The house margarita is the Cantina Rita. For $6.95, you get a generous pouring of some premium booze: Cuervo 1800, Cuervo Gold, Sauza Giro, Cointreau and Grand Marnier, topped with lime juice. It was thick and slushy and very, very smooth. Although I prefer a bit sourer, citrusy tang to my marg, this was a solid, sweet version and perfect for taking the edge off the day's worries.

The extended list of 52 different tequilas is impressive, especially the one that pours for $125 a shot. What really got my attention was the chile margarita. Presented with a flourish, the lip of the glass was bedaubed with a ruddy chile salt and decorated with a sizable serrano chile pepper dangling on a swizzle stick -- all clues that there's fire in the hole.

The result was what I had been looking for -- tangy frozen lime juice that dances a norteño polka across your palate, followed by a cinch-up-your-bola-tie spicy aftertaste. If you've ever tried any of the local chile beers, you'll have an idea of how refreshing this can be. This is a passionate take on the margarita and worth trying.

The blood-red sangria here is exuberant. Blending red wine with orange juice and fruit, the addition of blackberry brandy takes it to another level of richness. Served in large goblets, you need to drink it quickly before the ice cubes melt and dilute its complexity of flavors.

For starters, the rolled taquitos are filled with a zesty mixture of chicken and chorizo, paired nicely with an avocado-lime sauce. The quesadilla incorporates caramelized red onions and poblano chiles with your choice of meat filling. The chicken version is good, but the shrimp is excellent and makes me wish more restaurants offered it as an option.

The Sonoran crab cakes sounded promising, but they were uneven. The jicama slaw and the roasted corn tomatillo lime sauce were creative and flavorful, but on my first visit, the cakes were too fishy tasting to finish. On a later trip, they were passable but without much flavor -- ultimately a disappointing appetizer.

The Cantina's salsa selection is excellent. This eatery offers some of the most interesting salsas in the Valley. The salsa that accompanies your warm chips is a media picosa that's mild and thick with fresh tomatoes.

Things really became interesting when we asked for the salsa Tejana. Filled with garlic and cumin, this smoothly blended salsa is an exceptional mix of flavors. We liked it enough to take the rest of the bowl home for future experimentation.

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.

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.

The desserts are mediocre. Instead of triumphant endings to our meals, we were offered passionless desserts that gave us no reason to stick around for coffee.

The expected deep-fried ice cream was passable -- a croquet-ball-size sphere of vanilla ice cream, coated with undefinable crushed nuts, on a puddle of warm chocolate sauce. Despite the doughy coating, you can't go too far wrong with the basic blending of vanilla ice cream and chocolate sauce. Think of it as an inoffensive novelty for visitors from back East.

The same can be said of the Key lime pie. Heaped with bland whipped cream, the small slice of pie lacked any tartness. The next day, I looked at my notes but found I only had a vague recollection of the item. As a pie, it lacked all personality.

The flan, long the obligatory staple of Valley Mexican restaurants, revealed a lapse of attention in the Cantina kitchen. Instead of the usual smooth custard texture, the flan was slightly curdled, resulting in a lumpy, granular texture to the pudding.

Menu collector that I am, I dug out a Cantina menu from almost four years ago. Comparing the two, it's interesting to see that most of the prices had not changed. How many other eateries in the Valley can make that claim?

I just wish the food was more consistent. On one of my visits, I surprised a coyote on the far edge of the parking lot. If the culinary gurus at The Boulders did some fine-tuning at the Cantina, they could have an impressive eatery on their hands -- one that would have us all howling at the moon with every serving.

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