You really have to wonder about Palm Beach Gardens — what the heck is going on up there? The city is attracting investment just as though South Florida's economic bubble were made from bust-proof Dupont space fabric.
Take Cantina Laredo. This "gourmet Mexican" restaurant, which opened a couple of weeks ago, is operated by a little $265 million outfit (as of 2005) called Consolidated Restaurant Operations out of Dallas. Consolidated owns 140 restaurants in the U.S.; they include Spaghetti Warehouse, Good Eats, El Chico, and III Forks — names that say everything, I suspect, about the company's approach to dining and its assessment of its clientele. They're putting in a III Forks next door to Cantina in the Gardens too, and both restaurants appear to be the first tenants in a live/shop complex on PGA Boulevard whose dusty lanes and blank-eyed apartments are still unnervingly vacant.
Consolidated is doing its part to spread love American-style through the Middle East as well: It recently partnered with Saleh Bin Lahej Group of the United Arab Emirates and plans to open more than 70 restaurants in UAE, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Brunei, and Kuwait. If all goes well with the surge in Iraq, who knows if our friends in Baghdad won't be chowing down on Cantina's stuffed jalapeños and tacos al carbon before they get even their first mouthfuls of Big Mac?
So. Consolidated is flexing its entrepreneurial muscle in the three major economies on the planet: Dallas, Dubai, and Palm Beach Gardens. Too weird.
Consolidated's CEO and its investors must really know how to home in on a target market, because just a few short weeks after Cantina opened in the Gardens, the place is already jammed on a Sunday night. I'm sitting on the bench outside holding my coaster/beeper and waiting for the circle of red lights to beam me in, and I'm already wondering what draws the crowds here. Maybe it's the prices. Nothing on Cantina's menu runs over $25.99 (and that's only for the steaks); most of the entrées don't top the $15 mark. That would be a boon for families with a passel of tweens and toddlers, and they've for sure turned out in force — but so have young lovers and retirees and well-dressed middle-aged foursomes, ladies parking their Gucci bags on the ledges next to the booths and grannies shuffling Payless-shod tootsies endlessly through the front doors. A babe in a convertible Mercedes zips up to the valet station and we watch, fascinated, as the car's ragtop lifts, hovers, and folds, one petal at a time, like some exotic carnivorous flower closing for the night.
I'm sitting here realizing that as long as I live, I'll probably be a sucker for a pretty piece of P.R., because it's the shiny announcement and grand-opening invitation that has brought me to Cantina. I love Mexican food. I love gourmet anything. I ought to know better, but Cantina Laredo bills itself as the blissful union of the two, with a little magic Tex-Mex sprinkled around (and surely, coming from Dallas, they know their chili con queso). But by the time we're seated 15 minutes later (at any rate, they do know how to turn a table) and I've got the already-sticky plastic laminate menu in hand, niggling doubts are starting to cloud my sunny optimism. There is literally not a flavor or ingredient here that I haven't seen a million times, and some of it — the quesadillas, the nachos, the soft tacos — look suspiciously similar to the kind of fare I learned to "cook" as a teenager when I worked at Taco Viva rolling preshredded cheese and refried beans into manufactured tortillas.
But you just never know, do you? The Cantina branch in Plantation had been well-reviewed by somebody at a local daily a couple of years ago, so I took a deep breath and ordered: the botanas platter ($12.99), the Cascabel rib eye ($23.99), and the Monterrey ($13.29), a sampler of enchiladas with three types of filling and sauces. Our trainee waiter was shadowing a sour-looking waitress who, by 7 p.m., clearly had had more than enough of all this. She more or less dumped him on us. So our appetizer plate arrived before our drinks (which we finally went to the bar and got ourselves).
We sure could have used something to wash down that squalid arrangement of foodstuffs. Lukewarm queso tasted like Cheez-Whiz and got more rubbery as we picked at it. A skewer of beef, chicken, and shrimp, interspersed with undercooked mushrooms, came with a half lemon still jauntily sporting its Sunkist label. Stuffed jalapeños were mushy. Small pork tacos: underseasoned, dry. And chicken quesadilla? About like the four gazillion quesadillas you've eaten in every café, corner restaurant, boîte, or neighborhood pub since the quesadilla craze first swept America in, I dunno, 1995?
Things didn't improve much over our steak or plate of enchiladas. The 16-ounce marinated and grilled rib eye came with creamy scalloped potatoes, but the quality of the meat was just average. My plate of enchiladas was a disaster — the spinach-stuffed, the chicken mole, and the chicken/spinach/cheese were sort of glopped on the plate with yellow rice, tomatillo sauce, guacamole, marinated vegetables, melted cheese, ranchero sauce, poblano sauce, all of it mixing and oozing together. And Cantina should be legally barred from calling its brown sauce mole. No native of Puebla would recognize, much less swallow, this spiceless goo.
This food is so familiar, so last-decade, it's scary. I guess you could argue that classics never go out of fashion, but I still had no clue why anybody would want to eat at Cantina when there are dozens of delicious, authentic, cheap taquerias between home and PGA Boulevard. Or if Whitey is too jumpy to sup with lots of brown people, the excellent Rosa Mexicano is just up the road (although here, incidentally, the clientele is as racially diverse as a Benetton ad).
And then, ya, I got it! This is botanas for the budget-strapped, picadillo for the picky, camarones without cojones. I looked around at the plump, pale, hungry faces. As our waiter dumped our leftovers into a carton, a calm settled over me. If I had a couple of kids and a doddering dad to feed on a Sunday night, I realized, I might very well hie over to Cantina and beg for a stiff drink from the bar (offering a good selection of tequilas), assuaging my dulled appetites over chicken fajita salad, secure in the knowledge that there'd be plenty of leftovers tomorrow to refeed the whole squalling brood. The lighting is low and the booths are comfy, anyway. Bring on the margaritas!
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