La Santa, open since late May in the former Tobacco Road Sports Cafe, is owned by a group of partners who have more than a dozen Tex-Mex eateries scattered across North Carolina, Virginia and Kentucky.
But as the high-profile address of their newest venture suggests – Glenwood Avenue – La Santa is not the sort of place where you’ll get your Speedy Gonzales combo fix.
What you will find at the Glenwood South restaurant, with its Frida-Kahlo-meets-Day-of-the-Dead decor, is an eclectic mix of Mexican and Tex-Mex fare with an emphasis on fresh ingredients, scratch cooking and updated presentations. Underscoring the New School approach, menu descriptions follow the trendy – and at times tantalizingly cryptic – format of simply listing the ingredients in a dish.
Take the Burrito Momia, which the menu describes as “steak / casa beans / pico / avocado / Oaxaca cheese / bacon / Fresco salad.” If you guess that the Fresco salad is not part of the filling but a small side salad, you’re right. Bonus points if you somehow intuit that it’s garnished with diced mango. But if you’re able to divine from that description how the bacon comes into play, then I bow before your menu interpretation skills.
It helps to be fluent in Spanish, in which case you’ll know that “momia” means “mummy.” Turns out the bacon is wrapped around the burrito, and the whole thing griddled on all sides. Believe me, one bite and any frustration you may feel at this sort of menu description is forgotten.
The Momia is about as far as the menu strays off the path of tradition, though the emphasis on freshness and stylish presentations gives even classic dishes an updated feel. In ceviche de camaron, lime-marinated shrimp is blanketed in a colorful patchwork of chiffonade lettuce, diced red onion and ripe mango. The ceviche is one of just a handful of starter options on a list that also includes fresh guacamole (not prepared tableside, as the the term “fresh” often signifies, but made in the kitchen several times a day) and a mushroom-studded riff on a queso dip.
For more shareable first course options, you could always poach off the list under the Almuerzo heading, since these lunch items are available all day. Options include sopes, quesadillas and chilaquiles – the real deal, made by simmering tortilla chips in a rich house-made chile sauce.
If you’re in the habit of seeking out a sandwich option when you’re just looking for a quick bite, be advised that the torta ahogada is anything but. Featuring succulent shreds of pork carnitas crammed into a plate-spanning length of baguette, the whole thing soaked (or, as the word “ahogada” puts it, drowned) in a vibrant tomato-based sauce, this is a knife-and-fork sandwich if there ever was one. It’s easy to understand why, as the menu notes, it’s Guadalajara’s most popular dish.
Tacos come three to an order, generously filled and neatly arranged on a long rectangular platter. The menu lists eight variations on the theme, from pastor (pineapple- and onion-marinated pork on soft corn tortillas) to pescado (a culinary kaleidoscope of grilled mahi, cucumber, tomato, mango and avocado, drizzled with a creamy cilantro sauce and served on flour tortillas).
Vegetarian tacos raise the ante on the usual offering with grilled queso fresco, wedges of avocado and a chunky blend of roasted tomatoes and serrano chiles called salsa martajada. At other end of the spectrum, carne asada tacos should satisfy any carnivorous cravings.
But if you’ve got a serious hankering for carne, I suggest you go all in on the Una Asada entree. For just $4 more than the tacos, you’ll score an ample slab of carne asada (grilled skirt steak, as tender and juicy as it comes), a wedge of queso fresco and a small bowl of casa beans (aka refried beans, clearly scratch-made), laid out on a carving board garnished with a grilled jalapeño, grilled scallion and mounds of guacamole and pico de gallo. You also get warm corn tortillas on the side (the menu doesn’t tell you, but house-made tortillas are available on request), so you can make your own tacos and still have leftovers.
Fajitas – steak, chicken or shrimp – are also served on a carving board, a presentation that in this case poses something of a dilemma. On the one hand, it avoids the inevitable overcooking that results from the traditional presentation on a hot cast iron skillet. On the other, you don’t get the sizzle. Is it worth the tradeoff? Your call, but I say you can’t eat sizzle.
Taking its cue from the kitchen, the bar at La Santa offers a dozen beers on tap (including several local brews) and a rainbow assortment of fruity variations on the margarita theme, made with fresh squeezed juices and served in mason jar mugs.
Except for the C.E.O. margarita, that is, a high-roller concoction of Don Julio 1942 tequila, Grand Marnier and lime juice that will set you back 50 bucks. According to part-owner Leonel Vega, people sometimes actually order that one – which should come as no surprise, I suppose. After all, this is Glenwood South we’re talking about.
222-107 Glenwood Ave., Raleigh
Noise level: moderate
Service: generally welcoming and attentive
Recommended: ceviche de camaron, tacos de pescado, Una Asada, chilaquiles, torta ahogada, Burrito Momia
Open: Lunch and dinner daily.
Other: full bar; accommodates children; limited vegetarian selection; patio; parking on street and in the 222 Glenwood Parking Deck.
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.