Dining Review:

Menu mix makes Mexican succulent

CorrespondentNovember 4, 2011 

  • 510 Glenwood Ave., Raleigh

    720-4778

    www.cantinasouth.com

    Cuisine: Mexican

    Rating: 1/2

    Prices: $$-$$$

    Atmosphere: upscale contemporary with a Mexican motif

    Noise level: moderate to high

    Service: friendly, for the most part attentive

    Recommended: guacamole, duck flautas, tacos, burrito special, chiles rellenos

    Open: Dinner nightly, brunch Sunday.

    Reservations: accepted

    Other: full bar (excellent tequila selection); accommodates children; modest vegetarian selection; patio; live DJ late night Thursday-Saturday

    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.

    The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $16. $$$ Entrees $17 to $25. $$$$ Entrees more than $25.

Set into Cantina South's double front doors is a matched pair of large semicircular glass panes. Framing the panes, which form a perfect circle when the doors are closed, is a halo of painted-on flames, transforming the circle into an Aztec sun. The effect is striking, and affords a sneak peek into a dining room whose mix of rustic and contemporary elements - primitive wooden farm implements on the walls, lizard-motif floor tiles, and chandeliers fashioned from wine bottles - is well-suited to its fashionable Glenwood South location.

As it happens, those double glass panes also reveal a story that comes full circle with the July opening of Cantina South in the former Bogart's space. Fans of Bogart's, which closed in February after a 10-year run, will no doubt recognize the doors, which (minus the flames) announced the art deco theme of that restaurant's retro decor.

Kevin Summers, one of the original owners of Bogart's, sold his interest in the restaurant a few years ago. But he never lost interest in Glenwood South, nor forgot his observation that the popular nightlife district was missing a full-service Mexican restaurant. When the Bogart's space came on the market, Summers teamed up with veteran restaurateur Bill Holt to fill that gaping hole with Cantina South.

Fresh and from scratch

With an ambitious offering that ranges from guajillo and pasilla chile-marinated carne asada to pescado Tikin-Xic (fish marinated in achiote, orange and garlic, steamed in a banana leaf), the menu lives up to its billing of bringing "a modern twist to old-world Mexican flavors." Fresh ingredients and scratch cooking are the rule, starting with guacamole prepared tableside. In addition to the excellent classic version, you can explore that "modern twist" angle with two variations on the guacamole theme: jazzed up with chipotles, mango and jicama, or grilled chiles and toasted pumpkin seeds (watch out, that one packs a wallop).

A ceviche of lobster and shrimp marries traditional and modern with two marinades: the traditional lime, followed by a soak in pineapple and orange juices to temper the tartness. Tossed with mango and avocado, it's worth the $11 splurge.

Pozole rojo is a faithful contemporary rendering of the classic soup: chunks of North Carolina pork, hominy and barely wilted cabbage in an unctuous, chile-infused broth. Flautas de pato, deep-fried corn tortilla "flutes" filled with succulent shreds of duck confit, are another winning starter.

Under the House Enchiladas heading, entree options include duck carnitas, braised beef, shredded chicken in tomatillo salsa and shrimp in a creamy sauce of goat cheese and pumpkin seeds. Burritos - carnitas, char-broiled chicken, and carne asada - seem relatively tame by comparison.

That is, until your waiter informs you of the nightly burrito special. Recently, the featured filling was moist, lightly battered nuggets of deep-fried rockfish tossed in Buffalo sauce. Other specials have run a wildly eclectic gamut from sloppy Joe and Tater Tots (in a burrito!) to a Krispy Kreme cheeseburger burrito tribute to the State Fair.

Soft flour tortilla tacos (corn tortillas are available on request) seem pricey at first glance (around $12 for two tacos; $15 or so for three, including rice and beans). But the generosity and quality of the fillings - braised beef short rib, seared Mexican-spiced lobster, and a vegetarian filling that includes the prized corn fungus huitlacoche in sufficient quantity that you can actually taste it, to name three - justify the tariff.

A few misfires

Chiles rellenos, filled with a savory, gooey hash of beef, pork, vegetables and Chihuahua cheese, are first-rate. Pork tenderloin pibil is redolent of an exotic mix of Yucatan spices, but the dry meat falls short of its banana leaf-wrapped promise.

Miscues are infrequent, though, and usually minor. Posole in need of a dash more salt, say, or a puddle of juices from a "fruit salsita" of pineapple, mango and canned mandarin oranges marring an otherwise exemplary flan.

Pastel de chocolate, a ganache-glazed layering of chocolate cake and coffee mousse, is a sure sweet tooth bet. Unless you prefer to drink your dessert, that is, in which case you can choose from more than 50 tequilas and house specialty cocktails such as prickly pear margarita and passion fruit mojito. This is Glenwood South, after all.

ggcox@bellsouth.net

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