Restaurants sell more than just food; they sell attitude, and those with southwestern themes do so more than most. Just say "margarita," and visions of beachside hammocks and swaying palm fronds replace quotidian life. Guacamole and chips have come to signify blissed-out lassitude.
Cantina 18, newly opened in Raleigh's Cameron Village and serving "southwestern-inspired cuisine," makes the most of such associations. Red umbrellas on the patio with seating for about 60 attract customers like iguanas to a heat lamp, while indoors, terra-cotta colored walls, live bromeliads, red and green pendant lights, Fiestaware and a Pacifico Cerveza wall hanging convey a festive Mexican ambiance.
The taps are flowing with Dos Equis, overseen by an amusing portrait of its dapper, mock-heroic spokesman. It's not all that important that the decor is a little inconsistent: Tribal totems and bamboo trim look more Polynesian than pre-Columbian, large TVs shout "sports bar" and patchwork giclée canvases seem, as one customer noted, straight out of Kirkland's.
Fortunately the basics—'ritas and guacamole—are on target. The fresh lime Skinny Girl Margarita ($8), a nod to the recipe made popular on the reality television show The Real Housewives of New York, is tart and tasty (and only approximately 125 calories). The exceedingly smooth guacamole ($5) will charm even chunky-guac fanatics with its well-balanced cilantro, onion and lime, perfect with warm, salty house-made chips.
Once the tequila has kicked in, open the menu and sit back. It's southwestern-inspired, remember, and chef/ proprietor Jason Smith, having succeeded a few miles down Peace Street at the Southern-tinged contemporary grill 18 Seaboard, is showing his chops. This is no burrito bar.
"We're not whatsoever authentic, nor trying to be," Smith says. "It's just fun—no rules, make it exciting and fresh and flavorful and affordable."
For the most part, these detours into global fusion are worth the ride. A duck confit taco uses Asiago cheese and pumpkin seed pesto to amp up the flavor and pineapple to cut the fat. Both it and the excellent chicken/ apple/ goat cheese/ cranberry taco feel brunchy, like crepes overwintering in the Yucatán. The pork taco with mild kimchi is less of a continent-hopper and closer to cochinita pibil, with a warm complex spice and dripping meat juices. (One white shirt, R.I.P.)
Meat lovers will rejoice in the braised beef short rib entrée ($14.50), enriched by mushroom ragout and excellent salty charro beans (pintos cooked with pork and spices). Herbed green rice, served with the short ribs (and alongside many other dishes at Cantina 18), was the only true disappointment; on multiple tastings it was mushy, both in texture and concept. Smith volunteered, unprompted, that he'll be tweaking the rice recipe.
After three visits to Cantina 18—dinner during their first week, lunch two weeks later and Saturday night at prime time—it's clear that Smith does shrimp like nobody's business, not surprising given his earlier tenure at Charleston's Peninsula Grill. The cilantro-marinated peel-and-eat Pamlico Sound shrimp are woodsy and magnificent (12 for $8.50), as are the shrimp/ mango nachos ($8.50, though awfully chip-heavy: more toppings, please).
In the category of Best Taco, the cornmeal-crusted shrimp are in tight competition with the mahimahi and the pork/ kimchi. Fortunately, you can have all three for $11, including sliced radishes, lime-spritzed black beans, rice and a vinegar-based red cabbage slaw.
Lighter meals can be had on the soup menu. The mild, hearty chicken and hominy tortilla soup ($5.25) has more in common with a Brunswick stew than a spicy broth. Smith allows that might be true.
"My soup making has been influenced by two people: my grandmother and Ben Barker [of Magnolia Grill]," Smith says. "He's one of the best soup makers I have ever seen in my life. I think a lot of that comes from his Southern background. No matter what, I'm going to cook like a Southerner. If I open a Japanese restaurant, I'm going to cook like a Southerner. So I'm going to take that as a compliment!"
Vegetarian dishes include smoky six-chile queso dip ($5) which our table still gave a few shakes of the Cholula bottle; lime-marinated veggie tacos; and black bean soup ($4.50), simmered with aromatics, white wine, herbs, squares of queso fresco (think tofu in miso soup) and finished with an inspired lime zest and herb oil.
Soups arrive in large Fiestaware bowls and are suitable for two as a starter or one as a meal, if paired with some warm chips and, say, those peel-and-eat shrimp. On the salad menu, the chicken with pineapple is the solid favorite, with a knockout basil vinaigrette.
A few items provoke furrowed brows, like the BLT and burger with fries.
"We had a lot of our regulars at Seaboard saying, 'Well, I probably won't go there because I don't like Mexican food.' We really didn't want to put a burger on in the beginning. But you need to listen to your guests and accommodate them. It helps with kids, too, opens us up to a larger audience," says Smith. Kids' meals are $6 and include a side and beverage.
As for empty calories, our party of ladies rated the sangrias as refreshing but not quite worth it, while the Skinny Girl margarita and pineapple-orange mojito were superb. Looking ahead to dessert, the buttery, eggy white-chocolate bread pudding ($5.75) wins best in show, though you might want to keep it to yourself. If sharing, go for the clever s'mores-style plate featuring churro crisps, marshmallow fluff and generous chunks of Escazu's sassy chipotle chocolate ($8).
The night is young, and so is the restaurant. We look forward to snagging one of those patio tables, and soon, before it gets hot as a Mexican summer.