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Spring Break

Take a mini-vacation near Park Road

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If your recent trip to Florida, the Caribbean, Cancun, or other points south has you pining for more tropical breezes and typical island food stands, consider Cabana Jack's Fresca Grille.

Cabana Jack's may have opened during a cold January, but the interior will warm you immediately. Owner Charlie Owens says he wanted "to bring the outside in" and notes, "We wanted to provide an escape for people, a miniature vacation." Enter, then, a whimsical world of his design where diners recline against a slated wood banquette with four palm trees looming over head. Underfoot is a rustic, stained concrete floor. Tabletops are azure blue with wavy patterns. Chair backs are jellied bright lime, yellow, mango, and blue. A larger than life painting of a toucan dominates one wall. Colorful hanging lamps light the food evocatively. Stroll to the far end of Cabana Jack's and you will encounter a bar and more seating. The wrap around 60-seat patio has a working fountain and is dotted with white and blue striped table umbrellas.

Some of the restaurant's literature refers to its cuisine as "international," but Cabana Jack's is a Baja quick food kind of place, even if the chicken salad has a Thai peanut dressing. You won't find the tropical island dominance of fruits and roots. This menu features salads, chili, quesadillas, tacos, burritos, sandwiches, nachos, and entree specialties. The menu, short and concise, was designed by Amy Jarmatcki who is the Executive Chef and General Manager. Jarmatcki trained in culinary arts at Hocking College in Ohio. (Her husband, Joe Jarmatcki, was a local chef and a past president of Charlotte's American Culinary Federation chapter who was tragically killed in an automobile accident in 1998.)

Soon after arrival, a server produces a profuse mound of crisp tortilla chips and directs you to the Salsa Bar. There seems to be much ado about salsa here. At times, several diners gathered around the cart with their plastic cups in hand. Of the four varieties offered, the most persuasive is the pineapple mango. The others are the predictable and mundane black bean, tomatillo, and tomato.

Prices are mild. Menu items range from $4.75 for a basic burrito to $7.25 for some of the entrees. The kids' menu is $2.95. With prices so low, it is rather unbecomingly of me to cavil. The best of the offerings was a gratifying Cabana Jack burrito, which was not so jammed with rice as to be overwhelming. In sharp contrast to the burrito was the fish taco that contains a nondescript, one-step-removed-from-a-fish-fry white fish. The fish was too mellow and mushy to withstand a slathering of salsa.

Quesadillas, on the other hand, proved more satisfying with grilled chicken and portobello mushrooms wearing a veil of "island sauce." Finishing off the pork tenderloin of the Cabana Curry Pork entree was a snap, but the bed of jasmine rice upon which it rested was undercooked -- crunchy in fact. Desserts are brought in from Tizzerts, a local bakery, but Owens says they are considering offering house made desserts in the near future.

Some alchemy in the air encourages light conversion. Couples choose to sit beside each other, rather than across from one another. Children happily engage in rounds of peek-a-boo with kids across the room. You may even feel a zillion light years from Charlotte, which is exactly the breezy ambiance Owens intended.

Cabana Jack's Fresca Grille, 170 E. Woodlawn, Suite A, across from Park Road Shopping Center. 704-618-6575. Hours: Monday through Thursday 11am until 10pm; Saturday 11am until 11pm; Sunday 11am until 8pm.

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