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During a recent visit to La Cantina Mexican Restaurant in Stoughton, Gazette restaurant reviewer Bill Livick and a guest dined on several dishes, including this serving of Pancho’s lemon lime chicken.

STOUGHTON

Mexican restaurants come in all shapes and sizes, from small family-run taquerias to corporate chains such as Qdoba and Chipotle Mexican Grill.

La Cantina Mexican Restaurant opened early last month on Highway 51 North in Stoughton, and it falls somewhere between the two extremes. It has the appearance of a chain with clean, spacious dining rooms and an extensive menu, and it’s part of a six-restaurant business.

But it is also a family-run operation that knows how to treat employees, and it offers terrific service in a bustling atmosphere. Co-owner Reyes Arando can often be found greeting guests and waiting on tables along with the rest of the wait staff.

La Cantina features a full bar and a big kitchen, two dining rooms, decorative arched doorways and deep-cherry walls adorned with colorful paintings. It’s got about 25 employees and seating for 180 diners (with another 25 bar seats), Arando said.

He has been working in restaurants since he was 16, and he has seven brothers—most of whom are in the business, he added. Arando said Stoughton’s La Cantina is the family’s sixth Mexican restaurant (others are in Portage, DeForest and Iron Mountain, Michigan).

Food-wise, La Cantina leans more in the direction of the chain operations. It’s got a vast menu featuring most of the things you would find on other big Mexican menus, but with a few surprises that come from smaller, homemade kitchens and dining rooms.

An example is the classic Mexican street taco, with its protein—such as carne asada—supported by onion, cilantro and fresh lime in a corn or flour tortilla. You get the feeling this simple taco is prepared specifically for you. But La Cantina’s tacos are more generic, with ground beef, cheese, lettuce and salsa. They are tasty, but there is no comparison.

A California burrito ($11.50) fits much the same description. It is a tortilla stuffed with rice, beans, lettuce, cheese, guacamole and a choice of grilled steak or chicken along with sour cream or salsa. The individual ingredients are fine, but when all rolled into a big flour ball, it becomes a jumble of too many things. The lettuce, in particular, loses its value in such a mass of food. The plate gives a lot for the price, which can go a long way in making up for lackluster food. But ultimately, it is disappointing.

An order of Pancho’s lemon lime chicken is more interesting, featuring grilled chicken smothered in a creamy lemon lime sauce. It is served with rice and beans.

This recipe works better because it’s more straightforward. The grilled chicken is fine (though the sauce was a bit too thick for our palates), and the rice and beans add to the mix. A few tortillas on the side would help, and the plate would work better if something more creative could be done with the rice and beans (as opposed to serving the same stuff 95 percent of other Mexican restaurants offer).

But we loved the kitchen’s tangy salsa that accompanies a basket of chips.

The No. 1 combination—one taco with two cheese enchiladas and rice—is a basic plate that is filling and predictable ($11). Diners choose between a flour or corn tortilla, and the taco includes ground beef, cheese and lettuce with a slice of lime on the side. The enchiladas have a cheesy interior with a cheesy-creamy sauce drizzled over the top, and they go nicely with a side of Mexican rice.

Looking around the dining room, it’s obvious one of the big draws to La Cantina is its house margarita ($7.75). The bar offers all flavors of the rainbow—strawberry, raspberry, peach, lime and mango—but we liked the regular margarita on the rocks. Served in a large tumbler, it is refreshing and lively—a bit like La Cantina itself.

We also enjoyed the restaurant’s service, which was friendly, fast-paced and genuine.

La Cantina’s food isn’t generic to the point of fast food, but it could use some significant tweaks to set it apart from the national chains.

Bill Livick is a freelance writer who writes entertainment stories and Madison-area restaurant reviews for The Gazette.

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