The décor is dominated by promotional marketing for various brand-name alcohols -- it's on the walls, over the bar, and strung around the room on pennants. More than 90 varieties of the agave spirit are available, including excellent sipping tequilas like Jose Cuervo Reserva and Herradura Selecciones Suprema ($58 per glass). Lesser but still impressive tequilas get mixed into a myriad of modern margaritas at the big long bar -- as good as the watermelon version was, the basic Cuervo Gold margarita is probably the best. As in a real cantina, the alcohol flows, the mood is festive, and a good time is had by all -- except, perhaps, those who've come just to eat.
This latest in a line of Las Olas Louies (along with Louie's Oyster and Louie Louie Italian bistro), the Cantina boasts of an authentic taste of Mexico on its menu cover; if this were true and Mexicans really did subsist on such cheese-laden foods, they'd be as overweight as Americans. Turn the cover and some three dozen Americanized Tex-Mex items appear, many with descriptions that are followed by cute self-congratulatory comments such as "So so so delicious," "Ay chihuahua what a soup," and "Is your mouth watering yet?" When I encounter such menus, I'm reminded of an old saying by Ralph Waldo Emerson: "The louder he talked of his honor, the faster we counted our spoons."
Things started off inauspiciously, packaged tortilla chips with a dish of spicy puréed tomato and habañero salsa, which was fine, and a mild, lifeless salsa of unripe tomatoes, minced onion, lime juice, and kernels of corn. Guacamole can be ordered separately, though I wouldn't recommend doing so. The menu says it's made daily from fresh California avocados, and to spare New Times' legal team unnecessary work, I won't claim otherwise. But I will note that the cilantroless dip had taste and texture similar to guacamole made from frozen avocado pulp (with real chunks thrown in) and that it was very cold.
An appetizer of beef flautas didn't exactly take the "in" out of "inauspicious," a half-dozen overfried, cigarette-sized cylinders offering crunch and little else. Sides of salsa verde and sour cream couldn't rescue the dried-out sticks of beef. We might have taken some consolation from the mixed greens on the plate -- that is, if they had been dressed.
Chile rellenos were better, one large poblano pepper stuffed with chicken, pecans, and melted cheeses, then battered, fried, and smothered in a spicy ranchero sauce that tasted a bit like Italian-style marinara. Four ravioli Mexicanos were plumped with corn and black beans and topped with cojita cheese and green, slightly piquant poblano pepper champagne sauce (authentic Mexicans, as you probably know, rarely eat their ravioli any other way). They were full-flavored, complemented well by the pepper and cheese, and by far the best starter we tried.
Entrées arrived about ten minutes after appetizers, meaning we were faced with the choice of abandoning what we were eating or letting main courses get cold. We opted for the former, a prudent decision, as Louie's marinated churrasco steak, one of three parrilla items, turned out to be a thick juicy cut grilled to perfection -- just as the menu promised. Thin crispy french-fried potato and corn sticks on the side were tasty too. Chicken chimichangas were likewise rewarding; they included nibbles of grilled chicken breast tossed with onions, roasted peppers, slivers of pickled mango, and softly melted pepperjack cheese, all wrapped in a golden-fried tortilla.
Main courses went downhill from there. Veggie fajitas featured a mundane mix of onions, peppers, mushrooms, and squash, all oily and accompanied by a trio of flour tortillas and helpings of sour cream, salsa, and shredded cheddar and jack cheeses. The ordering of taco con pollo was even more regrettable -- two soft flour tortillas folded over overcooked chicken, more cheddar mix, and not enough shreds of lettuce for an anorexic rabbit to put together a light snack. The accompanying rice and refried beans would be ridiculed by Señor Frog.
A fair, fruity flan made for a simple if unexciting dessert. Peach "chaja" was all show and charade, a giant square of sponge cake layered and topped with canned peaches and whipped cream. It was large enough for two, which at $4.95 made it a cheap fill-up, but I'd have preferred a smaller version of what the menu said would be sponge cake, peach liqueur, and meringue.
The likable but clueless crew at Louie's didn't tell us of daily specials (which we noted on a blackboard on the way out), didn't ask how we wanted our meat done, didn't clear tables promptly, and, most significantly, are poorly trained. Bartenders, on the other hand, are quite adept at mixing elixirs. I suppose that's how it goes in a tequila cantina.