Do you want to know what I like about The 1 Cantina, a new Mexican restaurant in Avalon Park? Everything.
I like the comfortable and attractive space. I like the knowledgeable and charming staff, led by the gracious owners, Giovanni Rodriguez and Marigel Haaz.
And I especially like the food. This is true Mexican cuisine. It’s not Tex-Mex or a Floridian’s idea of what Mexican food should be. There isn’t a burrito or fajita on the menu; no sides of rice or refried beans, either. I didn’t even see one flour tortilla. As Rodriguez explains, he wanted to present foods of Mexico City he remembers from cantina tours with his father. I sampled a number of items from the menu and there wasn’t a thing I wouldn’t order again.
The Queso Costra, also known as Chicharrón de Queso – cheese cracklings – was especially fun. Resembling an Indian dosa, it’s cheese melted on a griddle then rolled into a tubular shape, served on a ploof of guacamole. You just tear off a bit of it, scoop up some guac and enjoy. It’s salty and chewy and delicious. The guacamole, which features in some of the other dishes, is terrific – chunky and creamy at the same time. And by the way, instead of a bowl of tortilla chips, you’re presented with some crispy chicharrones upon seating, crispy crunches that need no salsa.
I also had the Sopes Sampler, which features three savory masa cake platforms, one with pork belly, one with chorizo and one with shredded chicken. Each one had a distinct garnish or stylish touch, but they were all good. (The chorizo was a favorite, however.)
The Ribeye Carnitas had tender hunks of meat served in a molcajete over some of that great guac, with a basket of hot corn tortillas wrapped in a colorful cloth.
A sampler of tacos included a vegetarian option made with “filets” of grilled portobello mushrooms; cecina, strips of salt-cured beef topped with crumbles of chorizo; and steak, marinated in beer and topped with cotija cheese.
For dessert, how about a corn pie? Pay de Elote is sort of custardy cheesecake made with corn on a moist crumb crust. If you prefer something sweeter and more chocolatey, you’ll want the Choco Flan, vanilla flan on a layer of chocolate cake, served with pecan ice cream.
Or maybe you’d just like to have a Carajillo, an after-dinner cocktail made with a shot of espresso shaken with ice and topped with Licor 43, a vanilla flavored liqueur from Spain.
Speaking of cocktails, the 1 Cantina has an impressive array of tequilas and mezcals. (If you’re a fan of spicy things, you must try the Jalapeño Margarita; it’s like having fire and ice in the same glass.)
Many of the decorating touches are from Haaz, including the handmade tiles that function as drink coasters. The 1 Cantina occupies a space at the Marketplace at Avalon Park that, when the market opened last year, was designated an event space, with Rodriguez handling the booking. He thought it would better serve as a restaurant. It’s not a large space but not cramped, either. There is a bar with seating, a banquet along one wall and tan leather chairs at wood-topped tables. In addition, there is ample outdoor seating on the grassy terrace.
I don’t often have the chance (or reason) to gush about a restaurant, but I left The 1 Cantina thoroughly delighted with my experience.