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EDITOR'S NOTE 2/28/12: La Cantina is no longer open.
You know those days when you're just dying for comfort foods, perhaps, say, when the temperature dips into the single digits? Among my old standbys like mac and cheese, pizza, and Cheerios is anything Mexican. The city my office calls home has just gotten a bit more comfortable now that La Cantina is open for business on Shaw Street.
The former Raiders Roost & Kitchen is decked out south-of-the-border-style with a menu to match. The cheery decor - from Mexico-inspired murals and pinatas to chili-pepper lights - creates a cozy ambience that sets the stage well for belly-warming eats and soul-feeding margaritas. A $5 house margarita, albeit small, was perfect: not too sweet, lots of ice, and its maker knew to let the tequila do the talking. A half dozen other tequilas can upgrade the house marg if you prefer. Tequila-phobes may select from a handful of wines and beers.
La Cantina's nice, diverse selection of Mexican and Tex-Mex items makes it tough to pick one dish for dinner. The apps list is short, but I suspect they're all nicely filling. The refried chipotle bean dip might've been a meal for a less ravenous individual; I told myself I'd stop eating it after I assessed its merits. The fact that I didn't stop eating it says it all. I love refried beans - black or pinto - and my big test for any Mexican eatery is to judge the beans. La Cantina's pass the test. The refries in the dip come covered in chopped tomatoes, cilantro, onions, cheese and a few hot peppers for good measure with a pile of chips. It's a nice starter (for two), though the heat of the peppers might put off some.
For dinner, options abound: you've got pinto bean chili (thick and stew-y with nice smoky undertones and just the right amount of spice-kick), salads (more on this below), enchiladas, tacos, burritos, quesadillas and a slew of house specialties, including a mole chicken dish that's a flavorful feast, thanks to the bone left in the breast.
As a die-hard tamale fan, I was thrilled to find them on the menu. Tamales are rare menu items on the East Coast, and La Cantina's take on the husk-steamed rolls of masa will take a place on my list of old standbys. My chicken-filled tamales (veggie option available) were steamed to perfection, and chef Brian Brother didn't skimp on the masa, which is my favorite part of a tamale (I'm a crust gal, and the masa pretty much functions in the same way in a tamale). Tamales can come covered in enchilada sauce or cheese, and while my server didn't ask me my preference (or provide me with water until I asked), the accompanying enchilada sauce was nicely done.
But if you like burritos, try La Cantina's upgrade on the burrito, the chimilada. Any of the house burritos are available as chimilada, which is a grilled version that comes with your choice of sauce: classic enchilada, mole, or salsa verde. The mole sauce on my pork chimilada was very nice - savory, with a perfect touch of sweetness. One almost wants a soup made out of it. Rice, pintos, and salsa fresco fill out these burrito behemoths that are flavorful and well executed. Add guac for $1, and you'll be glad you did. The guac at La Cantina is somehow light and chunky and very tasty, versus the green paste some eateries offer as guacamole.
The big surprise for me, though, was the Mexican Chef Salad. The menu states the dish comes with shredded chicken and taco beef, eggs and two cheeses. What you get is beautifully seasoned shredded chicken and taco beef with a freshly fried egg on top. This salad is big enough to be a satisfying meal, and the tomato chipotle vinaigrette dressing you can get with it is as delicious as it sounds. This salad really doesn't need any dressing with all that textural, flavorful topping, but it's worth having a few forkfuls with some of the dressing.
If you can fit dessert, ask your server what's cookin' because they don't appear on the menu. The featured bread pudding last week, topped with a light caramel sauce, was absolutely wonderful.
And after dessert, order another margarita and kick back and dream of warmer days to come.
221 Shaw St., New London
Cuisine: Authentic Mexican and Tex-Mex dishes.
Atmosphere: Casual and cozy.
Prices: Appetizers and salads around $6.95, dinners $12.95.
Service: Laid-back and friendly.
Hours: Seven days; Monday through Thursday 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday (brunch), 10:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Take-out available. Dinner starts at 3:30 p.m.
Credit cards: Mastercard and Visa.
Reservations: Preferred for a larger party.
Handicapped access: Narrow doorway could prove tricky.