Gourmet Mexican reaches The Gulch

Friday, May 22, 2009 at 1:00am

Cantina Laredo takes an upscale approach with items for the more adventurous diner and for those who like traditional tastes

Cantina: Spanish for “tavern.”

Laredo: A Texas city with a population of about 230,000 and an economy based largely on trade with Mexico.

Cantina Laredo: A franchised gourmet Mexican restaurant, with locations in 10 states including a very recently opened — and eye-catching — Nashville space in the main level of Icon in The Gulch.

“Nashville is a strong restaurant and entertainment city,” said Matt Langston, Cantina Laredo’s general manager. “It had a need for a quality, gourmet Mexican dining experience, and The Gulch is the right fit.”

It would seem so. During a recent Wednesday at 2 p.m., the chic new dining spot accommodated a very respectable number of stylish guests enjoying a late lunch. This writer opted for a spinach enchilada, rice and refried pinto beans. All were fresh and flavorful.

With CL taking an upscale approach, diners should expect to pay more for their soft tacos and fajitas than they would at their favorite hole-in-the-wall Mexican joints. For example, the five lunch menu “combinaciones” are $8.99 each. Clearly, the $4.65 Speedy Gonzales — ubiquitous to many Mexican eateries — is not an option.

On the dinner menu, appetizers, soups and salads range from $5.99 (for a small cup of sopa de tortilla) to $13.99 for a botanas platter.

Not counting postres (desserts), the dinner menu offers 43 items, with all but a handful priced above $9.99 and eight costing $19.99 or more. For those watching their budgets, the chips and salsa are complementary, a major plus.

“We have menu items for the more adventurous diner and for those who like traditional tastes,” Langston said.

The Gulch location represents Cantina Laredo’s 29th, and the first in Tennessee. Dallas-based Consolidated Restaurant Operations Inc., the CL parent, bills itself as the nation’s largest gourmet Mexican restaurant brand.

Detractors of chain eateries abound on various Internet sites, so it’s no surprise to see some debate whether the quality of food, service and atmosphere at Cantina Laredo is worth the added expense when compared to, say, Nashville’s La Hacienda or Las Americas Taqueria.

Fans of CL contend the cleanliness and attractiveness of the space and the detailed preparation of each plate justify the menu prices. Also of note, the Nashville Cantina Laredo offers two outdoor seating patios, for those who want to enjoy the bustle of The Gulch.

Given The Gulch is quickly reaching the critical mass of retail, restaurant, residential and office vibrancy needed to be accurately termed a true “urban district,” a cosmopolitan restaurant like CL is a perfect fit, according to Dirk Melton, development director for Gulch master planner and CL landlord MarketStreet Enterprises.

“Cantina Laredo sets the bar for Mexican cuisine in Nashville, and they have seen an overwhelmingly positive response to the concept, the space and, most importantly, the product,” Melton said.

Clearly, the characteristics of “gourmet Mexican cuisine” are open to debate. To Cantina Laredo Nashville’s credit, some of its kitchen team are of Mexican ethnicity. Also, the restaurant offers a number of dishes with spinach and various moles. Both Oaxaca and cotija cheeses are found on the menu, as is red cabbage. Lastly, CL’s top-shelf guacamole is made tableside.

“Diners see one getting made and they want one, too,” Langston said of the beloved avocado dip. “It becomes a chain reaction. The guests get to tell us exactly how they want it prepared, so it is flavored just right for their taste.”

A Sunday brunch (served from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.) will tempt diners who engage in Saturday night revelry, with Crab Cakes Benedict ($16.99), the tried-and-true Huevos Rancheros ($12.99) and Migas Con Huevos ($12.99) among the menu’s eight dishes.

Gourmet and/or upscale Mexican cuisine is not necessarily new to Nashville. Since 1979, the popular La Paz has served enchiladas and burritos from its Green Hills locale. And the independently owned Rosario’s, which anchors the quirky Edgehill Village, offers a classy decor and a strong take on higher-end Mexican food and drink.

However, Cantina Laredo shines by offering the ultimate cosmopolitan atmosphere and by shunning dishes with playful (or even silly) names or risky ingredient presentations. In addition, you will find no burritos on the CL menu — though Langston said his kitchen staff is happy to concoct the ever-popular wrap for those who request one.

“We make everything from our signature sauces to daily fresh fish specials with a commitment to being authentic and true to Mexican flavors,” said Langston, who lists as his favorite CL dish the Cameron Poblano Asada, a poblano pepper filled with shrimp, cheese and spinach, wrapped in an asada steak and served in a bed of chimichurri sauce.

“Even our house margarita, the Casa Rita, is made with quality tequila and fresh-squeezed lemon and lime juices.”

A tasty margarita alone is enough to lure folks to a Mexican restaurant. With its vibe, service, cuisine and Gulch locale, Cantina Laredo’s lure should be stronger than a bowl of red-hot salsa.

Cantina Laredo
592 12th Ave. S.
11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays, 11 a.m. to midnight Fridays and Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sundays