Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Cantina 1511 - Dilworth

The other night, BFTB and I both had a sudden attack of "I need chips and salsa"-itis and we headed over to Dilworth to grab some dinner at Cantina 1511. The last time I Cantina'd, I overdosed on their delicious queso, ended up Mr. Creosote-style full, and, for the sake of my cardiovascular system, swore off the restaurant forever (knowing full and well that "forever" would be a gross exaggeration). After a yearlong break, I was excited to get back in the saddle and give Cantina another shot (but I decided ahead of time to avoid the queso).

We arrived at the restaurant around 8:45pm on a Sunday and were quickly seated in a booth near the bar. Planning for relatively big days at work the next morning, we both opted to forego drinking any of Cantina's signature margaritas, but from prior experience, I can attest to the fact that the Casa Cantina is one of the best marg's in Charlotte. My friend Victoria used to be a bartender and I'm always bugging her for mixology tips. A while back, she taught me to add a little bit of OJ to marg's to make them extra tasty and add a little extra (but different) tang to the drink. However, I always end up putting in too much or too little orange juice (which I admit is normally an off-brand variety that's way past the expiration date), and I never seem to be 100% satisfied with my final product. Cantina, however, combines fresh orange and lime juices, El Jimador Blanco tequila, and sour mix to make a delicious, light (at least in taste), and refreshing beverage that perfectly accompanies salty, rich Mexican food. Now that I think about it, I'm really regretting my decision to stick to H2O...

Our dip smorgasbord - red house salsa (left), 
the guac after adding Cholula (middle), 
and salsa verde (right)

Goat Cheese & Lump Crab Guacamole
While we looked through the menu and decided what to eat for dinner, our server brought us a reasonably-sized basket of white tortilla chips and a little bowl of red salsa. A few of my friends aren't the biggest fans of Cantina's salsa, but I love its smoky, chipotle-esque flavors and appreciate the change of pace from the typical, watery, ketchup-like salsa served at most Mexican restaurants. Since we were on a chip bender and neither of us had ever eaten it before, we decided to get an order of the Goat Cheese & Lump Crab Guacamole as a starter. Our server quickly returned with a tray of ingredients and began preparing our guac tableside. As she mashed the ripe avocados in a stone pestle, she asked us about our pepper and lime juice preferences. We told her that both sounded delicious and requested that she be heavy-handed with the spicy ingredients. She dumped in all the Serranos she had (note to self: request extra peppers when placing the order next time), added in the additional spices and lime juice, gently folded in the goat cheese and crab meat, and presented us with a giant bowl of delicious-looking guacamole. Other than my first bite (which was  a little heavy on the goat cheese), it was great, especially after BFTB and I seasoned it with a tablespoon or so of Cholula.  At $10.50, it is a pricey option for a dip, but it's a gigantic quantity of food. By the time we were full, BFTB and I had barely put a dent in the bowl and I'm convinced it could have easily fed 4+ hungry people as an appetizer. I also think that the crab, goat cheese, and avocados were all of high quality, and there were no weird sour cream or mayonnaise fillers, further justifying the steep price. Either way, it might not always be in my budget to order an almost-$11 starter, but it's a tasty splurge for every now and then. At my request, our server also brought over a little bowl of Cantina's salsa verde, which I thought was especially tasty when mixed with the guac (BFTB preferred a red salsa-guac combo). All in all, I loved the guacamole, it was just better after we added some additional heat. 

Marinated Steak Fajitas...
...and our plate-o-fajita toppings

Because we were already getting pretty full on chips and all of our various dipping accouterments  we decided to split an order of the Marinated Steak Fajitas and a side of the Sweet Plantains. The fajitas came out sizzling hot and were accompanied by three flour tortillas (although we did have the option to choose corn tortillas), pico de gallo, guacamole (the amount of guac on our table looked a little absurd at this point), lettuce, shredded cheese, and escabeche. At first, when I read "escabeche" on the menu, I was a little confused. I studied abroad in Guatamala as an undergrad and I always thought escabeche was a meal consisting of pickled fish. I'm no Spanish language prodigy, so I guess escabeche really just means pickled or marinated something, because there was no brined-and-aged fish on our plate (which is probably a good thing). Honestly, I'm not really sure I spotted the mysterious escabeche anywhere, but I'm sure it was in our meal somewhere. The cast iron fajita pan was filled with long, thin strips of lean steak and similarly-cut strips of zucchini and onions. Everything was grilled nicely and marinated to the point that it was savory without being overly salty (maybe it was escabeche'd?). While the meat and veggies were a little bit on the greasy side, they weren't fatty to the point that it took away from any of the hearty, grilled flavor. The meat actually tasted like it was prepared on an outdoor grill, which I think is something atypical enough to get excited about. Just as I did when I was a little kid, I got overzealous when it came time to assemble my fajita. I started by smearing some crab guac onto my tortilla (surf and turf, anyone?) and covered the whole thing in veggies, meat, lettuce, and pico. Shockingly, I decided that the filling was good enough on its own, and I did not add any cheese. I'm a cheese-a-holic, so this was a completely rogue move for me, and I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the fajitas were tasty even without the extra dairy. The only negative would come from the pico de gallo. On its own, it really wasn't anything to write home about. It tasted bland and the pieces of tomato and onion weren't big enough to add any crunch to the fajita. However, I was really impressed with the fajitas overall, especially when balanced out with a drizzle of the tangy salsa verde. The whole thing was really, really good and definitely a reorder. As with the guacamole appetizer, the portion size was an outrageous amount of food. One order of fajitas is certainly enough to feed two hungry adults.

My overstuffed fajita
Now, to the best part of the meal... I'm convinced that I could write a sonnet about the deliciousness of Cantina's Sweet Plantains. During my time in Guatemala, I was served some pretty questionable food by my host family (such as spaghetti cooked in chicken broth and topped with ketchup and dozens of scrambled eggs, often fertile... ew). However, one thing I absolutely loved to eat was my host mother's homemade plantains. She would meticulously slice the giant platanos into thick, diagonal pieces and then slowly fry them (with her bare hands... no spatula in sight!) on the plancha -a wood burning stove/oven combo with metal plates used as the cooking surface. The warm, sweet, mushy plantain pulp would get enveloped in a salty, thin crust and the entire thing was absolutely delicious. If I was lucky enough to be served plantains, I would hoard them in a pile on the side of my plate so that they would be the last thing I ate. Now that I'm back in the States, anytime I see that a restaurant serves plantains, I have to order them. There's not really much that can be messed up about a fried, overgrown banana, but sometimes they just aren't executed well -they'll turn out too greasy, too starchy, too overfried, or just mediocre. While I've eaten some pretty good plantains at Loco Lime, Cantina's might be the best that I've found in Charlotte. I really like that Cantina's plantains are cut extra thick. It gives the whole thing a good proportion of pulpy interior to fried exterior, making each bite as tasty as the last. Being a fan of food mixes (my friend Lorea would probably hate this...), I topped my fajita with a mushed up plantain. The sweet, salty combo was heavenly. I loved the plantains on their own, but I really think using them as a food topping is an especially great way to eat them. I know Cantina serves Sunday brunch, but I've never checked it out and from the looks of it, I don't see plantains featured in any of the menu items. That's a crying shame... the thought of eating those little guys alongside some breakfast-y, chorizo-y sandwich seriously makes me start drooling into my keyboard. Anyway, if I haven't made it clear enough, the plantains get an excellent rating in my book and are worth a trip back to Cantina on their own.

In sum, while I drive by Cantina nearly every day and I often recommend it to out-of-town visitors, my most recent visit reminded me that I, personally, need to make it over to 1511 East Boulevard more often. While some of my friends complain that it's an expensive dinner, BFTB and I were both stuffed for a total of $34 plus tip. In my book, that's not bad. I also like that Cantina satisfies my craving for Mexican food without being excessively greasy (emphasis on "excessive..." let's have realistic expectations of a Mexican restaurant, people). Based on this past trip alone, I'll give Cantina 1511 a high 8.5/10 and a strong recommendation.

PS- I also recommend that somebody send me tips on places to go for plantains... Writing this has already made me start craving them again.

Cantina 1511 on Urbanspoon


  1. There are a couple of Cuban restaurants in the area that both have tasty plantains: Piece of Havana on S. Tryon in Charlotte, and Carlos Cafe on Stonecrest Blvd. in Tega Cay/Fort Mill. Mmmmm!

  2. I haven't been to either... I'll definitely need to check them out ASAP! Thanks for the recommendation!

  3. Punta Cana, a Dominican restaurant on South Blvd., and Pio Pio, a Colombian restaurant on East Blvd., are both pretty good. Also we buy platanos at the Dominican supermarket Compare Foods and J. cooks them (both maduro y frito) probably about once a week. We'll have to invite you over!