Regional Yucatan cuisine sparked the menu of the 220-seat Cantina 1511 on East Boulevard, which opened in late July. Cantina 1511 is the brainchild of two Charlotte entrepreneurs: Frank Scibelli, who also owns Mama Ricotta's, and Dennis Thompson, who has owned many restaurants in the Charlotte area, including the Blue Marlin (which used to operate on this site).
Scibelli chose to do authentic regional Mexican cuisine, focusing on the Yucatan since this is a neglected segment in the Charlotte market. The Yucatan's native ingredients include epazote and the habanero chile. Most of the dishes are not searingly hot and much of the cooking of meats is done in open fire pits where the meat is marinated with nuts, spices such as achiote (annatto), sour fruit juices and chilies, and then wrapped in a banana leaf. The cuisine of the Yucatan bears only a slight resemblance to the sour-cream-and-yellow-cheese-oozing plates of Tex-Mex food that have come to represent Mexican cuisine to many Americans. Just as Rick Bayless and his popular PBS television show Mexico: One Plate at a Time shows another side of Mexican cuisine, so does Cantina 1511 -- at least for now.
From the parking lot of Cantina, one is prompted to remember the incarnations of the site. Was Sunset Bar & Grill before or after the Chinese place? The interior's carefully calibrated ambience flows in seaside sunset colors briefly punctuated by a wall of pottery and other knick-knacks. The main dining room has booths under the windows and banquette-table seating in different sections, enough to allow nooks well suited to sequester havoc-wreaking children or loud parties. The one oddity is what a dining companion termed the "cone of silence," which is either a glass-walled private dining room near the entrance or a holding chamber for game show contestants.
The bar business has rolled back into the space with a Jimmy Buffett vengeance. Scibelli noted, "We do sell a lot of margaritas. We sell a lot of tequilas, too. We now have 35 brands on the menu." There is a brief wine list as well.
Currently the kitchen is in flux. Cantina opened with one chef, but now has another. Scibelli moved over Duilio Macchiavello from Mama Ricotta's, and also plans to have Chef Chris Swineyard of Chicago's Red Sage restaurant come on as a consultant.
The menu offers a round-up of Mexican dishes from tacos, quesadillas and burritos to a section titled "Seor Atkins" and its low carb tortillas. Some dishes are offered in both large and small portions. Sides, including sour cream or Mexican crema, are extra. Dinner entrees range in price from $10 for roasted chicken enchiladas to $19 for grilled red snapper. The taqueria items range from $2.50 for a Pork Barbacoa taco to $9 for a grilled steak burrito.
The first things out of the kitchen were baskets of crunchy chips coupled with salsas. The cavalcade continued with guacamole made tableside, shrimp tacos accessorized with caramelized onions and balanced with jalapeno, and a large well-seasoned quesadilla, smoky, not spicy.
Best of all was the Pollo alla Parrilla, a spin of a Yucatan favorite: black beans and white rice, dotted with red onion and topped with an achiote-citrus marinated grilled chicken breast. Only the banana leaf was missing. The grilled Cuban shrimp was equally appealing and also accompanied by black beans, spicy rice and fried sweet plantains.
Only a few things were not up to snuff. The grilled Kobe beef skirt steak was too tough while the multi-milk cake, not a typical tres leches, was overly indulgent and too sweet.
The greeting at Cantina is warm, yet the service remains haphazard. On the last trip, while we read War and Peace between courses, our server rushed to the table to tell us the kitchen had run out of paper, presumably from the printer. That was a first for me, a restaurant version of "my dog ate my homework."
Scibelli said the menu would change soon. The kitchen is scratching the Caesar Salad ("It was invented in Mexico, but people think it's Italian") and added more Tex-Mex ("It's what people want"). Also at risk, alas, is the mouth-watering achiote-marinated chicken. But I understand that it's easier to change a menu than to open some people's minds to new flavors.
Many restaurants have attempted to make a go of this spot. For now, the place is packed and margaritas rule. But will these menu changes be designed for volume and easy consumption? As one of the characters in Big Night said, "First give the people what they want. Then you can give them what you want." Hopefully, Cantina 1511 will offer a little of both.
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