If you haven’t noticed by now, I love Mexican food. Every “diet” I have ever attempted is derailed within hours by tortilla chips and salsa, or a chimichanga, or any other opportunity to eat from any country south of Texas. So I was sad to leave Chicago, where you can find a Mexican- fare establishment on just about every corner, and nervous that I would fall into a Tostitos/Picante Salsa hole of sadness. But luckily, La Cantina opened and is an easily-excusable walk from my office.
Now I’ll admit, since the addition of carnitas to their menu earlier this year, I rarely stray from that. But I have to make a confession, and it breaks my heart to do so. Upon my recent visit, I did stray from my staple of carnitas, or tacos al pastor and the worst part? I regret it, the same way I would if I got caught stealing a snickers bar from Target- I thought by spending $100 there at each of my last 200 visits that I would be fine, but it’s stupid. And this was stupid.
Normally the carnitas, rarely ordered by anyone I go there with thus I always try to encourage them to try it, is perfect. Traditionally, carnitas is pork shoulder, salt-rubbed and fried before braising for hours with an assortment of spices from cumin to bay leaves to cinnamon. Meaning “little meats” you receive small chunks of moist, salty meat with a crisp seared edge. I forego building it into a taco to not waste room in my belly on tortilla but save it all for the carnitas. I never regret this choice.
But on Saturday night, I got crazy. I thought “it’s a holiday, I’ll take a chance, Carne Asada is normally great, and what better way to celebrate than with Steak”. But that was the problem- I wasn’t thinking. I’ve had Carne Asada before that makes me want to stab my tablemate and steal their meal. It’s well seasoned and melts in your mouth, and you barely have to cut it to get to the next bite. But what I received (very quickly I may add, so there’s the silver lining) was disappointing. After my efforts to cut around fat and find a part with a good, flavorful sear, I ended up with four bites before I stopped trying. I turned back to the guacamole, which was salted and seasoned with a great balance of onion and tomato, and ultimately turned back to carnitas and al pastor for my future visits.
In all my visits there, this was the first one that didn’t leave me full and regretting my decision to eat every piece of food in front of me. During one visit this summer, we were treated to a beans & queso dip and mojitos- both special orders and not on the menu. Not only did they honor our request with a sense of humor and complete accommodation, but both were delicious.
Their chicken mole is worth recommending. A sweet mole but not overpowering flavor, with little pieces of chicken so you can eat it all without having to do so much work yourself. And if you are there when they are serving Tacos al Pastor, don’t pass them up. Little pieces of pork with an almost-barbecue flavoring, they are normally complemented with the sweetness of pineapple and freshness of cilantro.
I would comment their margaritas but I don’t drink them anymore…. after possibly drinking 30 too many one night due to their greatness, and I’ve haven’t been able to quite hoist myself back up on that wagon. But their (secret) mojitos definitely do the trick, along with their selection of beers.
If it wasn’t for the other offerings, great staff, and outdoor patio, I would consider going somewhere because of the Carne Asada incident (which I will continue my search for). But there are so many delicious things I would be missing out on, that I wouldn’t dare.