Play Magazine Says “Viva La Cantina!”

Posted on Thursday, March 15, 2007

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Rachel Perry visits Cantina Los Caballitos in this week’s Play Magazine. Click here for the full story.

Viva La Cantina!
Rachel Perry Staff Writer 03/14/07

Cantina Los Caballitos is a spiced-up, modern Mexican feast

When you look at it from the outside, Cantina Los Caballitos, at first glance, seems awfully mysterious and unapproachable. In fact, from where it stands on busy Passyunk Ave. in South Philadelphia, it almost looks a bit out of place. Maybe it’s the Halloween-esque orange and black exterior or the very heavy, creepy-looking wooden door. But nothing, not even the “eek” factor of the unknown, keeps me away from my Mexican. (Besides, I’m so not a wuss — not about spicy food, and not about weird doors.)

The restaurant’s exterior might have been a little off-putting, but inside, however, it’s a totally different story: Los Caballitos, dressed up in cheerful blues and oranges and warmed by recessed lighting and candles in punched-tin holders, is anything but eerie. Instead, this Mexican eatery has more of a low-key, mod feel to it. Tattooed waiters and waitresses flash us friendly smiles as they stroll by with trays, and groups of friends sit at the tables or at the bar, chomping down on nachos and sipping bright margaritas. It’s suddenly clear that Cantina Los Caballitos fits right in, especially with the South Philly hipster crowd.

The restaurant opened its doors at 1651 E. Passyunk Ave. on May 31, 2006, so they’ve got less than a year of service under their belt — but it’s likely and hopeful that their modern attitude and delicious menu will keep them afloat in the competitive waters of Mexican food. And speaking of competitive, there’s actually another Mexican restaurant right across the street: El Zarape.

But manager Kristin Mulvenna explains that they’re not really competitors; while they both favor the same ethnic cuisine, Cantina offers a different, more modern kind of Mexican fare.

“We opened before El Zarape opened,” she says. “El Zarape is actually run by Mexicans, so it’s more traditional. Here, we have over 40 tequilas, and the food is a lot more accessible to people who are looking for something a little more [contemporary].”

But don’t assume that the folks at Los Caballitos don’t know how to do Mexican. “The owners [Stephen Simons and Dave Frank] actually went to Mexico and did a lot of research,” explains Mulvenna. “It’s been great. We have a ton of regulars. People come from outside the city, too. It’s a good mix.”

And, she adds, “Old-school South Philly guys like to hang out here and drink black sambuca.”

As for the décor, it’s fun and inviting — and, surprisingly, environmentally friendly.

“The floors and booths are all salvaged barn wood,” Mulvenna says.

Plus, you can’t help but love a restaurant that gives an equal amount of love back to the neighborhood — especially economically speaking.

“All the food we use is local,” says Cantina’s chef, Mark McKinney. “We buy fruits and vegetables from Giordano’s Market on 9th St. He hand-picks everything. And Danielle from Vegan Treats — we buy some of her desserts, which are 100% vegan.”

That’s not particularly surprising if you know that Cantina, which has plenty of meat selections, also specializes in vegetarian and vegan cuisine. There’s really something for everyone.

“Forty percent of our clientele is vegetarian or vegan,” McKinney explains. “I was vegan for 14 years.”

“[McKinney] realized that when you eat that way, it’s very hard to go out,” Mulvenna adds. And take it from me, a strict vegetarian — Cantina has enough veggie-friendly choices to make even the pickiest eater a happy camper. And get this: Most Mexican restaurants cook with lard, but not this one — so health-conscious diners can have some serious peace of mind.

And as if there weren’t enough things about Cantina Los Caballitos — check this out: Another of their perks is that they offer many, many great drink options. Like Mulvenna says, there are more than 40 different tequilas, and there are plenty of delicious mixed drinks, including a variety of mojitos and margaritas, sangria as well as some interesting concoctions like the Bebida Manzana: hot apple cider, ginger and rum. Mmm! Happy Hour at Cantina’s is quite the treat, too; Monday through Friday from 5 to 7 p.m., margaritas and beers are $2 apiece and house pitchers are half-price.

But let’s talk food; after all, great decor and tequila can only do so much for a restaurant’s appeal. I’ll start by saying that my dining companion (Stella Perry, my lovely mama!) and I were exceptionally pleased with our meal — everything was wonderful, thanks to McKinney’s impressive skills in the kitchen.

As an hors d’oeuvre, our server brought us some homemade and rather addictive tortilla chips with pico de gallo and pico verde (both quite yummy). To wash them down, I ordered a strawberry margarita (with a salted rim, of course). It was good, although it went a little heavy on the tequila — but I had it coming, ordering a tequila-based drink from a restaurant that specializes in, well, tequila.

“We’re really big on the margaritas,” Mulvenna says cheerfully. “All the fresh fruit purées [used in the margaritas] are made in-house. I love the blood orange margarita!”

Moving on. My mother and I ordered a salad course — Ensalada César (romaine hearts, roasted peppers, plaintain chips, cotija cheese and roasted garlic-chipotle dressing) for her and Ensalada de Nopal (grilled cactus paddle, iceberg lettuce, red onion, tomato, jalapeno, pumpkin seeds, smoke paprika vinaigrette) for me — for $7 each (very reasonable). I’d never tried cactus, and it was a little slimy, but it was actually also really delicious. The César was also excellent; the dressing was a perfect complement to the elements of the salad, and boy, were those plaintain chips good!

Other appetizers on the menu include the Salsa Fiesta (tomato, tomatillo and grilled pineapple with chips) for $7, guacamole with chips for $7, Quesadilla Vegetariana for $9, and rice and beans burritos that can be made five ways: vegetarian, or with chicken, beef, goat or pork; prices vary).

Mulvenna also recommends the ribs as an appetizer. “The ribs are absolutely fabulous!” she says. “They’re so tender that they fall off the bone. Also, the quesadillas sell like hotcakes. People just love them.”

“The thing we sell the most of is tacos, but quesadillas are a close second,” agrees McKinney. “But I don’t think I have a specialty. I like everything! The food is inspired by years of working as a cook with many Mexican cooks.”

As for our “platos fuertes,” I decided on the Fajitas Vegan, a wonderful combination of seitan chicken, smoked tofu, wild mushrooms, peppers, onions, black beans, white rice, pico de gallo and guacamole — all available for me to scoop into mini flour tortillas according to my own tastes — for $14. My mother opted for the Mole Rojo con Pavo, also $14, which consisted of turkey with mole sauce (she loved the sauce!), white rice, sliced avocado, grilled jalapeno — also ready to be self-served in mini tortillas. Mmmm! We certainly made good choices, and the plates were heaping, so we ended up also having plenty to take home.

After that amazing meal, we were so full — but of course, we saved a little bit of room for dessert (which turned out to be a very good decision). The dessert menu listed the day’s choices as Flan ($4), Approz con Leche (rice pudding, $6), Pastel de Chocolate (mousse with a hint of chili, $6), Chocolate Banana Empanadas ($6) and Vegan Chocolate Cake ($6).

My mom was brave and ended up going for the Pastel de Chocolate — chili and all. But you could hardly taste the chili, so if it was there, it wasn’t remotely unappealing; instead, the mousse flavor dominated and boy, was it good. (Chef McKinney says his own mom makes him bring it home regularly!)

I picked the Chocolate Banana Empanadas, which came drizzled in a tangy syrup, garnished with fresh mint and dusted with a light powdered sugar. They were served warm and definitely satisfied my sweet tooth.

All in all, it was a delicious and surprising meal — which is exactly the way it should be. Cantina Los Caballitos is fresh, flavorful and original; if I have it my way (and if the loyal patrons have it their way, too), it will be a landmark in South Philly for years to come. Viva la Cantina!

©Play 2007

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