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South Side Review: La Cantina Grill

By Chuck Sudo in Food on Jul 18, 2007 6:00PM

2007_07_lacantinaprime.jpgResidents of the South Loop/Motor Row area are quickly getting more dining options, and just in time, as home buyers and renters flock to the "hottest" neighborhood in the city. There's Jerry Kleiner's long focus on developing a restaurant district along South Wabash (with Opera, Gioco, Room 21); the Mainstay Hospitality holdings all do great business; Cuatro consistently draws diners from all over the area; Café Bionda proved so successful that owner/chef Joe Farina's opened a Wicker Park location; even established restaurants like Coast Sushi have taken notice, opening a South Michigan location called South Coast Sushi.

La Cantina Grill is a small cantina-style Mexican restaurant located on South Michigan, across the street and a few steps away from South Coast Sushi. If the name of the restaurant wasn't painted on the awning, we would have wondered why the sidewalk was dotted with patio furniture purchased from an Ace Hardware. We were hungry and thought we'd take a seat and check it out.

2007_07_lacantinadrink.jpgFirst thing: to call this place a cantina is almost false advertising. It certainly isn't decorated like one. It's decorated like any bar/restaurant you might walk into throughout the city: lots of dark woods, the ginormous plasma screen behind the bar. The space between the bar and the wall in the front is also a bit tight for two-way traffic. Get past the bar, and it widens a bit. The claustrophobia was only a problem when we were making our way to the bathroom, since we were sitting outside and enjoying the weather.

Chips and salsa came to us almost before we sat down. The chips were fresh and warm, the salsa tangy with just the right amount of heat index. We ordered a healthy-sized margarita ($6.95), but it certainly wasn't the seventeen-ounce monster advertised on the menu. We've worked behind a bar long enough to know what a seven-ounce margarita glass looks like. Getting past that, La Cantina makes a good margarita that could be improved with more fresh lime juice, less sour mix.

2007_07_lacantinafood.jpgFrom the entrees, we ordered the Camarones al Mojo de Ajo ($15.95). Again, a decent dish, but nothing memorable. The shrimp were perfectly butterflied, but we couldn't taste the garlic butter sauce in which the menu claimed they were basted. The Mexican rice that came with the dish was also a bit lukewarm, which is always a turnoff. All of this was compounded by some loudmouth woman sitting to our left, screaming into her cell phone about hooking up with friends for some invitation-only party sponsored by Bombay Sapphire gin at the River East Arts Center later the afternoon of our visit. We accept that cell phones are a part of modern society, and that some eavesdropping onto conversations is a given. But this woman was screaming so loud into her phone we could have almost been a part of the conversation.

Digressing, was the meal worth sixteen bucks? The folks at La Cantina seem to think so. Honestly, we could have eaten this meal at Nuevo Leon for half the price. The service we received was excellent. And while we always rank good service high on our list, it can't compensate for food we can't recommend. If hindsight is 20/20, we would have gone across the street to South Coast. As it stands right now, La Cantina Grill isn't going to make us skip Zapatista, even with the citations.

La Cantina Grill is located at 1911 S. Michigan Ave. Hours of operation are 11 a.m. - 11 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. - 1 a.m. Friday, noon - 1 a.m. Saturday, and noon - 10 p.m. on Sunday. Their phone number is 312-842-1911.

Front facade photo courtesy of La Cantina website.