Expectations surpassed [restaurant review]
One of the most common complaints about any restaurant, or about a movie, book, or performance, is the most unjust. When I hear a complaint that someone didn’t like something because “It wasn’t what I expected,” I find myself suspecting that the speaker has a narrow view of the world.
That has been a problem for the new Enrique’s Cantina on Catalina Avenue near Torrance Boulevard in Redondo. The name pretty much guarantees that this is a bar that serves food as a sideline, and the architecture reinforces that idea. The room is dominated by a bar with electric blue lighting, and TVs are mounted on several walls. You reach for the menu already knowing what is going to be there: tacos, nachos, and bar snacks to wash down the margaritas and Mexican beer specials.
And then you actually look at what is offered. There are Mexican influences on the menu, but with the exception of the chips with guac and street tacos there isn’t a single standard item. Instead, you are offered agave and beet salad, chili hummus, salmon with farro-corn risotto, and pork shank osso bucco with chipotle sweet potatoes. There are Mexican ideas, ingredients, and techniques somewhere in each dish, but combined in adventurous and sometimes whimsical ways. The dishes were created by Colin Colville, a veteran chef who has made a specialty of reinventing different cuisines.
Some of the tweaks are subtle, and one of the popular items was originally a kitchen accident. Colville was trying to stuff a banana leaf with cheese, corn, and pumpkin to make a tamale but the ingredients blended instead of obediently holding together. The vegetable sweetness with cheese was great when used as a dip for chips, so it’s now on the menu as a grilled banana leaf fundido.
That seems to be a permanent fixture, but other starters change and have included grilled octopus with romesco sauce served with toasted pepitas, housemade chips, and radish slices. This was quite successful, but a conceptually similar plate of soft shell crab over housemade bacon with chili-lime aioli and pickled carrots didn’t quite hit the mark. Both were relatively small portions, which would further confuse anybody who was expecting the abundance of traditional Mexican cantinas.
The bar menu would throw them too. For starters, there isn’t a standard margarita on it, though the owner will happily make one for anybody who asks. They do make one with a bit of mole sauce in it, an interesting experiment that I didn’t find quite successful. Another item, the rum-based “Mr. Columbia,” was swamp-water green and looked awful but had an intriguing flavor that my wife liked enough to order on our next visit. I tried a few other house special cocktails here and found them adventurous but hit or miss, with a tendency toward a sweeter palate than mine. They have the materials for all the standard items and make them well, and there is also beer and an unusually good selection of wines.
We tried three main courses, all of which were adventurous but on solid ground. The pork shank sofrito was a solid Mexican version of osso bucco, slow cooked to tenderness and served in a mild chile stock with garbanzo beans and with mashed sweet potatoes. It’s comfort food with a creative Mexican twist, as is the mac and cheese with shrimp, chorizo, corn kernels, and roasted poblano chillies. The chorizo had been crisped and shredded so didn’t add the greasiness that is the usual mark of that sausage, and there was just a touch of heat and richness to the dish.
The real standout among main courses takes an African-American tradition in a downright wacky direction. Chicken and waffles was popular as early as 1920s Harlem, when it was said to be favored by jazz musicians who were dining after late shows and couldn’t decide whether to have dinner or breakfast. Chef Colville makes excellent fried chicken and puts it over churros, then drizzles it with jalapeno agave syrup, and it’s stunning. It’s an inspired combination of sweet and spicy flavors with the jalapeno-agave ably replacing maple syrup, and it’s the must-order item here.
Those same churros are available for dessert, but you also have the option of a silky horchata panna cotta served with almond cookie crumbles and fresh whipped cream. I like whipped cream and couldn’t figure out why it was there, but it’s a nice sweet finish to the meal.
Dinner for two with two cocktails ran about ninety bucks, and it was worth it. If you are looking for standard Mexican chow, there are other places in the area. If you put aside your preconceptions and are ready to see what a fine chef does with Mexican inspiration, head for Enrique’s and enjoy the ride.
Enrique’s Cantina is at 320 S. Catalina in Redondo. Open 4:30 p.m. – 10 p.m. Tues.-Sun., weekend brunch 10:30 a.m. – 4 p.m. Parking lot in rear or street parking. Wheelchair access okay. Chef will make vegetarian items. EnriquesCantina.com. (424) 390-4430.
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