Guiltless pleasures (and Avocado-tinis!) at Cantina Laredo

The empanadas de pollo were a lively start to the Don Julio dinner at Cantina Laredo. Especially eaten next to a couple of young women enjoying happy hour and dishing about their boyfriends.
Photo: Erin Ryan

The chili-salt rim and the spicy, almost metallic aroma of Don Julio silver tequila are familiar. But I’ve never seen a cocktail full of avocado nuggets floating like ice. One suspicious sip of the “Avocado-tini” and I’m hooked, wishing I had a fat straw to suck up every creamy morsel soaked in pineapple rum, agave nectar and Cointreau. In fact, I shamelessly dip my empanada in the drink like it’s a bowl of guacamole.

It’s the first course of Cantina Laredo’s tequila dinner, a marriage of fresh Mexican cuisine by executive chef Damon Workman and famous Mexican liquor by Don Julio. The guests are on the patio enjoying the sunset and tamale-like empanadas stuffed with tender chicken, mild cheese and bits of green chili, topped with silky red salsa and micro-cilantro. The earthy flavor of the corn masa shines, setting the tone for the meal to come.

For the salad course and the first shot in a straight Don Julio sampling, we take our seats inside the bustling dining room. Rather than start with a young silver, as is customary in a tequila flight, we skip right to the 18-month-old añejo, smelling of bright citrus but tasting of warm honey. It wakes up my palate for beautiful spinach leaves embellished only with a drizzle of raspberry chipotle vinaigrette, crushed pecans and soft, salty Oaxaca cheese. It’s refreshing to have a salad at a Mexican restaurant not covered in fried tortilla strips and some creamy mess masquerading as jalapeño dressing. The paired ginger-pomegranate margarita has the same simple appeal, at least in the way it tastes. The presentation, however, involves an enormously tall glass, a neon-green sugar rim and big slices of fresh ginger for garnish (mine flies at the poor woman next to me, making her think for a second that the ceiling is falling).

Cantina Laredo's Don Julio Dinner

For the main course, we have a choice of bacon-wrapped filet in a four-chili sauce with nopal (prickly pear) salad and potatoes or a relleno stuffed with vegetables and shrimp alongside cilantro rice. Our server raves about the latter, so I dive in, again surprised and delighted to find the dish much lighter and brighter in flavor than other rellenos I’ve tried. There’s no breading or heavy sauce to obscure the poblano’s wonderfully bitter taste and snappy texture, which almost overpower the filling of juicy shrimp, sweet corn, zucchini, sauteed spinach and cheese. The rice is succulent and popping with cilantro. But as sides go, my neighbor’s velvety, garlic-forward cactus is the best thing on anyone’s plate.

The beverages with this course are Don Julio 70, the world’s first añejo claro, and the Mandarin Tiger, made with Don Julio reposado, sake, ginger beer and splashes of juice from mango and two kinds of oranges. My table-mates agree that the Tiger doesn’t have quite enough fruit-sweetness to mellow the bite of the reposado, but the 70 is all smooth vanilla.

With dessert, we taste “Don Julio’s choice,” the 1942. The slim bottle is meant to echo the shape of an agave leaf, and the tequila has several layers of agave flavor. The cocktail is a frozen, blended margarita, always a hit on a hot night like this. But the watermelon and raspberry don’t play nice, making for a highly acidic aftertaste. The dish is the opposite—a dream of tequila-spiked whipped cream with fresh golden and red raspberries, blueberries and strawberries. I literally scrape the sides of the glass.

Light, tasty, perfectly filling—these are my lingering thoughts about the meal. The last tequila in the flight is potent but sip-worthy. Don Julio Real, an extra-añejo, is aged for more than three years in American white-oak barrels, imbuing it with the qualities of whiskey. The base agave grows for a dozen years in volcanic soil before being harvested, so the flavor profile is rich and whispers of rich stuff like almonds and chocolate.

Miraculously, I’m neither drunk nor clutching my stomach wondering why I ate so much. That's the genius of Cantina Laredo's take on Mexican cuisine. The Tivoli Village restaurant is a great spot for happy hour or a weeknight meal. Here are some favorites from the regular menu that are not to be missed:

Ahi Tuna Tacos— Crispy wonton shells stuffed with raw ahi and topped with chipotle aioli, jicama slaw and guacamole. These mini-bites are a perfect Asian-Mexican fusion snack with a signature margarita. $8.99

Enchiladas de Espinaca— Sauteed spinach, Monteray Jack and mushrooms inside a tortilla smothered in creamy sour cream poblano sauce. It's the indulgence of an enchilada with a daily dose of greens. $11.59

Torta de Carnitas— Every Mexican restaurant has carnitas. But this griddle-baked sandwich combines the slow-roasted pork with fried egg, tangy apricot spread and creamy goat cheese. It’s the kind of thing an evil genius makes after a long night of tequila. $13.99

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