Canyon Southwest Café Is Worth Its Wait in Gold Dust
Editor's note: We've got a new restaurant critic here at New Times. John Linn has been something of a protégé to Gail Shepherd over the years. Now Shepherd's moving over to become a staff writer for us, and Linn's stepping into the role of restaurant critic. As he gets his taste buds ready for the transition, we're serving up a leftover, a December 2007 column Shepherd wrote on one of our favorite local spots.
I just got back from Brooklyn, where street gluttons wait patiently in line a hundred minutes or more to crowd into a dinky storefront parlor for the pizza at Di Fara. The old guy behind the counter, Dom DeMarco, is spry and focused; his Neapolitan hand is the only one to touch these pizzas, made one at a time at a fairly leisurely pace, while his footsore customers gaze upon him with reverence. DeMarco saturates his crusts with extra virgin olive oil, scatters hunks of buffalo mozzarella and a snowfall of Grana Padano or Reggiano, snips leaves of fresh basil or oregano, and dispenses them around the steaming pie like a magician waving an herb-scented wand. About an hour or so into our wait, as we inched ever closer to the prize, the friend who'd invited me wanted to know if we South Floridians had anything comparable. Places people lined up for? Native foods worth a two-hour wait? Some little old lady with a roadside tamale stand, maybe?
I thought about it. I could have answered honestly, "The Cheesecake Factory," but my foodie creds with this guy would have been ruined forever. We SoFla types do have our stubbornly held legacies — barbecued gator, sugar-and-margarine-on-Wonderbread sandwiches, the orange/shredded-coconut salad we rightly call ambrosia. We have controversies over who makes an authentic key lime pie or where to find the best deal on stone crabs just as fierce as any New York pizza wars. But one of the only places I could think of where customers lined up for hours, and where the result was in fact worth the wait, was Canyon Southwest Café.
Canyon, conveniently situated next to the Sunrise movie theater in Fort Lauderdale, doesn't take reservations — they know better. At midweek, the bar behind the front door is packed with people swilling Canyon's signature pink prickly pear margaritas, made with the cactus fruit marinated in blue agave tequila, which gives the drink the kind of blush you could only hope to raise in your beloved's cheek. Those delicious margaritas, served frozen, straight up, or on ice, even at $9.50 each, go a long way to softening the impact of an hour's wait for a table. What with the eye candy, considerable from this perspective, and the conversation enjoyed with your fellow tequila swillers, you might even say your time spent is pretty painless. "Part of the experience," as my Brooklynite friends would say of Di Fara's.
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Still, we can hardly call Southwestern-style cooking our own, unless we redraw the North American map with very generous boundaries. Florida does share elements of this hybrid cuisine. A group of Texas chefs may have "reinvented" New Southwest cooking in the '80s, but in truth, both ingredients and cooking techniques derive from the oldest regional cuisine in the Americas: the words guacamole, tomato, and chili have Aztec origins. The Southwestern cooking we know today mixes and matches cultural foodways of Mexico, Spain, Native America, and the open range, painting from a palette of primary colors: yellow corn; red tomatoes; green peppers, tomatillos, and avocados; chilies, squashes, and beans in a dozen different hues.
These vegetables and fruits flourish in our southern tropical climate: In this sense, the flavors dished up at Canyon are both local and familiar. We recognize the crunch of the corn tortilla, the tang of cilantro-laced salsa, the soothing heft of yucca, the dusting of ground chilies. The menu's skewered and grilled bison may look exotic, but these big guys were once natives too, a favorite food of our 14,000-year-old Florida Indian cousins. Pork, like Canyon's chili-rubbed chop served with tequila-papaya salsa, arrived here early via the Spaniards. As for snails (Canyon serves escargots with tawny port sauce and a red chili tamale), we have more than 100 native marine and freshwater species; Florida snowbirds, along with our local snail kite, have been digging this whorled gastropod from its shell since the end of the last ice age.
Chef-owner Chris Wilber, who's been cooking at this location since the mid-'90s, was one of the first restaurateurs here to recognize that spicy-hot foods and humid-hot climates are a natural match. Mexicans turn up the heat in their tacos because the burn induces a good sweat, a sort of internal air conditioner. They recognize too that a corn or flour tortilla works like a swab to soak up the capsaicin oils in chilies that leave your mouth all but seared. (Note: Never drink water trying to cool a chili-inflamed tongue — it'll only compound your misery.) If Southwestern cuisine isn't precisely indigenous to Florida, it sure feels and smells and tastes like it should be.
Wilber pushes it further in our direction by tilting his menu ever so slightly toward seafood, from snapper and grouper to shrimp and oysters. There's a fantastic appetizer of shrimp tapas ($15), a flatbread topped with grilled Florida shrimp, tomatillo drizzle, a scattering of creamy-sharp Spanish manchego cheese, and roasted chili peppers. If you snag a seat at the bar while you're waiting for a booth, you can order snacks like this one to whet your appetite or the equally exquisite blue-corn-crusted oysters, fried and served in their shells ($16), beautifully crunchy on the outside and pudding-like within. A little pool of cilantro cream puddles underneath them, and the whole deal is accompanied by a whispery-light green salad tossed with roasted corn and chili vinaigrette. Both the tapas and oysters are a lesson in texture and color — vivid on eye and tongue, with a buttery umami that fills your mouth with happiness: real party food. A party is exactly what you're here for. I spotted no one during my last two visits who wasn't having what looked like the time of their lives.
As noisy-crazy as Canyon is, the place still exudes coziness. Earth and wood tones are dashed with the occasional spot of electric blue; the lighting is low except for peaks of intense glitter shimmering on the designer tequila bottles posed on the back of the bar, as if to say: Drink me. Wooden wine warrens have been tucked here and there into the walls overhead. Draped in an elegant white tablecloth, our booth had the feel of semi-privacy in the midst of mayhem. And the servers passing gracefully through the thrum were highly knowledgeable and just damned nice. The hostess at the door, overseeing an elbowroom-less location that would send any normal staffperson into a frothing tizzy within 15 minutes, treated us with benign geniality. We might as well have been the only customers in the place, instead of just two of many dozens.
Wilber calls his menu "modern Southwestern with Asian, South, and Central American influences," and he's scattered a few dishes, like the wasabi ginger beef with soba noodles and carne asada, around to ground that claim. But the best dishes here are squarely in the Southwest tradition. Bison skewers ($17) are cooked to a perfect turn, tender and rare on the inside, coated with an inspired rub redolent of Indian spices, a fresh tomato salsa with jalapeño on the side, and a rich red chili crema to drag the meat through.
On our first visit, I raved that Canyon might be the best restaurant in Fort Lauderdale, and a little research at home confirmed that New Times had voted it just that in our 2001 Best Of Broward-Palm Beach issue. The flavors Wilber uses are potent reminders of what can be done to your taste buds: Everything pops. On a second visit, although the food was just as good, I started to quibble. Those flavors did indeed shine from every dish, but they'd started to shine in the same way, whether the dish was chicken or fish or steak — the creams and the chilies and the corn, the salsas and the pestos, were beginning to run together. Even the organic chicken with toasted almond red chili mole ($24), a meal that ought to have confounded all the other flavors we'd sampled, tasted like more of the same (and the chicken was overcooked).
I don't know how you'd get around this problem as a regular customer, exactly, because even the divine red snapper fillet (roasted Peruvian potatoes, toasted corn, marinated tomatoes, $25) would start to seem a little dull after too many repetitions. The beef tenderloin burrito ($24), very fine as it is — overflowing with strips of tenderloin, red peppers, and mushrooms — is ultimately just gussied-up street food. I have nothing bad to say of the salmon fillet cooked on a Mexican cast-iron comal (a flat, heavy pan); it was nicely prepared with a melting center, but only the chili potatoes that came with it linger in memory. I started to wonder if the wilder and more potent the flavors, the harder the chef has to work on upping the taste sensations to keep customers on the edge of their seats. Would Canyon begin to bore in the long haul?
Wilber hardly seems to want to become some sort of mad food scientist — the menu over Canyon's 12 years has shifted only slightly, little tweaks to celebrate each new year. And the crowd keeps on coming, throwing back those prickly pear margaritas (it's hard to imagine how my appetite for these could ever flag) and spooning up the last remnants of white chocolate bread pudding (it comes in a vat the size of a powder-room sink and tastes like the best sex you've ever had). If Wilber and pastry chef Dean Roman had done no more than create one perfect cocktail and an even more idiosyncratically delectable dessert, their work on this planet would have been well done.
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