Escape the winter blahs with trip to vibrant Cancun

CorrespondentDecember 5, 2008 

  • 2016 Creekside Landing Drive, Apex

    387-1210

    Cuisine: Mexican

    Rating:

    Prices: $-$$

    Atmosphere: Tropically colorful and casual (can get noisy)

    Service: Hit or miss

    Recommended: Chile Cancun, camarones a la naranja, pollo con rajas

    Open: Lunch and dinner daily

    Reservations: Accepted

    Other: Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Discover; full bar; smoking permitted in the bar and on the patio; accommodates children; minimal vegetarian selection

    The N&O's critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: Extraordinary.
    Excellent.
    Above average.
    Average.
    Fair.

Ah, December in the Triangle. Weather that's frequently gray and drizzly, occasionally cold enough to generate ice storms (and their resulting power outages) but inevitably falls short of producing even one winter-wonderland snowfall. Driving home from work in the dark, in bumper-to-bumper traffic exacerbated by holiday shoppers. If you hear Burl Ives singing "Have a Holly Jolly Christmas" one more time, you're gonna snap.

It's enough to make you want to pack your bags and jet off to Cancun. Unfortunately, given these uncertain financial times, that just isn't going to happen this year.

Cancun Grill, on the other hand, is doable. Barring another spike in gas prices, most of us should be able to make the round trip to the restaurant -- in the new Beaver Creek Crossing South shopping complex in Apex -- for under five bucks. Most entrees are in the $10 range, and you can create your own three-item combination plate for $6.95.

Cancun Grill is hardly your typical Tex-Mex eatery. Seafood gets top billing here, with a dozen or so entrees ranging from shrimp in chipotle sauce to huachinango Maya, grilled red snapper with onions, tomatoes and bell peppers. Shrimp quesadilla is offered as an entree but is ample for two or more to share as an appetizer.

Camarones en salsa verde, starring large, properly cooked shrimp in a tangy green sauce, is a refreshing variation on a dish that usually features pork. An order of camarones a la naranja produces grilled shrimp in an orange sauce that's much lighter and more subtle than it sounds. Pescado al cilantro serves up a brace of pan-seared tilapia fillets under a blanket of mild, creamy cilantro sauce. The fillets are on the small side, but the dish is nonetheless a keeper.

If I had to pick a favorite dish among all I've sampled so far at Cancun Grill, though, it would have to be chile Cancun: three fresh poblano peppers, stuffed with shrimp and julienne red bell peppers, topped with melted cheese. A close second would go to the pollo rajas my server recommended on one occasion. Featuring moist cutlets of chicken breast sautéed with red and green bell peppers and onions, topped with molten cheese and strips of grilled poblano, the dish is a multisensory delight served fajitas-style on a sizzling platter.

The menu offers a number of other intriguing possibilities that I haven't yet had a chance to explore. Chicken in tamarind sauce, for instance, and Mexican style beef ribs. Squash stuffed with cheese and salmon, if the dish survives the latest menu revision. And pollo con mole. As I was leaving last time, the manager told me that the mole sauce is homemade.

The offering also includes a respectable selection of taqueria-style tacos, with eight filling options ranging from carne asada to lengua to fish. I'd especially like to try the tacos al pastor, but the vertical rotisserie that sits temptingly on display behind the counter in the back room hasn't been in operation when I've visited. Now that the restaurant is in full swing (it opened in June), I understand that the rotisserie is usually fired up at least Thursday through Saturday nights.

Cancun Grill's decor lives up to the tropical promise of its name with potted palms, terra cotta tile floors, arched doorways and walls painted in vibrant shades of mango and lime.

The casual mood and modest prices have quickly made the restaurant a popular destination for families in nearby neighborhoods in Apex and Cary. Based on my experience, it's hard to predict whether the dining room will be empty or full. If it's the latter, the dining room can get quite noisy.

Service can be feast or famine, too, depending on the crowds. If the restaurant is busy when you arrive, I'd suggest that you order a margarita made with your choice of tequilas from a respectable selection that ranges from Cuervo to Patron. Then, if your server gets swamped, you can take a sip, close your eyes, and pretend you're relaxing on a beach in Cancun.

blogs.newsobserver.com/epicurean or ggcox@bellsouth.net

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