I love Mexican food. Every diet I have ever attempted is derailed within hours by tortilla chips and salsa, a chimichanga or any other opportunity to eat food from any country south of the border.
I was sad to leave Chicago, where you can find an authentic Mexican-fare establishment on just about every corner. I was also nervous that by returning to Eastern Iowa, I would fall into a Tostitos and Picante salsa void. Luckily I was wrong. Not only are there authentic Mexican restaurants in town, one of them, La Cantina is within walking distance of my office
Now I’ll admit, since the addition of carnitas to the menu earlier this year, I rarely order anything else and have never been disappointed. But I have another confession, and it breaks my heart to write it. On a recent visit, I did stray from my staple. And the worst part? I regret it.
The carnitas are 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. As a result, the “little meats” are moist and salty with a crisp sear. I usually forgo the tortillas to save room for the meat.
But one night, I got crazy. I thought Carne Asada is normally great, and what better way to celebrate than with steak. If the Carne Asada is well seasoned, it 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. Despite my efforts to cut around fat and find a part with a good, flavorful sear, I ended up giving up after just four bites and turning back to the guacamole, which was salted and seasoned with a great balance of onion and tomato.
In all my visits to La Cantina, this was the first 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 beans and 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.
The chicken mole is also worth recommending. It’s a sweet mole, not overpowering, with little pieces of chicken so you can eat it all without having to do much work. And if you are there when they are serving Tacos al Pastor, don’t pass the dish up. Little pieces of pork with an almost-barbecue flavor, they are normally complemented with the sweetness of pineapple and freshness of cilantro.
I also recommend the margaritas. But I don’t drink them anymore. After partaking in too many one night, I haven’t been able to quite hoist myself back up on that wagon. But the (secret) mojitos definitely do the trick, as do the selection of beers.
I would consider going elsewhere because of the Carne Asada incident (which I will continue to search for). But there are so many delicious other reasons — including a great staff and outdoor patio — to visit La Cantina that I don’t dare.
— Laura Kaiden