New frontier

Chic cantina serves picture- and palate-perfect Tex-Mex


Having bemoaned the quality (or lack thereof) of south-of-the-border fare in this city for years, I can now unequivocally declare that one place has finally looked beyond the Tex-Mex standard and broken through its well-established borders. The restaurant: Cantina Laredo, handsomely decked out in blond wood and black leather with sleek lines and enough cool to lure starved gringos in from Dellagio's dusty streets. The mixed-use complex is still under construction, but a number of restaurants ' Fleming's, Bravo Cucina Italiana and another soon-to-open Urban Flats ' have already moved in. Like the others, Cantina Laredo is a chain ' Dallas-based, with the kind of prices that make you wonder. How can a restaurant justify charging more than $17 for three tacos? That's, like, 19 chicken burritos at Taco Bell! But that's merely an illustration, not an invitation to make a run for the border, because at Cantina Laredo, what your wallet loses in girth, your stomach makes up for in weight.

The botanas platter ($13.99) alone is filling enough, though not all items in the sampler wowed. Cheese quesadillas were basic (then again, cheese quesadillas rarely wow) and the wee dollop of chili con queso was practically negligible. But crunchy stuffed jalapeños were gooey and had a nice kick; tacos al pastor were moist and aromatic; and the skewers of tender beef, sweet shrimp and plump mushrooms, pierced into a lemon and laid vertically, were picture- and palate-perfect. Tables, it should be noted, are shrewdly set with silver bowls containing avocados and limes, a sort of supraliminal message to order their top-shelf guacamole ($9.49). Worked for me. Before we knew it, our efficient waitress was manually forking limes and blending avocados with tomatoes, onions, serranos, cilantro and a secret powder seasoning right at our table. The result was a wonderfully chunky guac, served with salty tortilla chips. A splash of the warm, smoky salsa served it well, too.

If you've got an extra $17.29 to spend, the chicken tacos al carbon, seasoned with a peppy dry rub, are a treat; otherwise, come back at high noon, when the lunchtime-only brisket tacos ($12.49), slow-roasted and stuffed inside three soft corn tortillas, give cause for some of my friends to break the speed limit from John Young Parkway. Sample carne asada ($18.99) at many a Tex-Mex joint and you're likely to get a tough slab of flattened meat, but the steak here is velvety-soft, liberally seasoned and served with tangy yellow rice and a grilled veggie mélange of carrots, potatoes and green beans sprinkled with shaved almonds. For vegetarians, enchiladas de espinaca ($10.99) is a vibrant choice thanks to the undeniably fresh and perfectly cooked spinach blended with mushrooms and Monterey jack. The corn tortillas held up under a healthy ladling of a sharp sour cream'poblano sauce. One thing to note: They take upselling seriously here ' shameless plugs for margaritas and tableside guacamole eventually give way to a tempting dessert tray of sweets. I opted for the fab flan ($5.29), thick, dense and glazed with a citrus sauce, and their signature crepes ($5.99). I liked the caramel-y cajeta sauce, laced with Grand Marnier, while my dining partner thought the apple filling better. One thing we agreed on ' Laredo's desserts are just as filling as the dinner fare.

Better loosen your belts, y'all.


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