In my continuing quest to blog about BRW restaurants utilizing Urban Food Project ingredients, I stopped in for dinner at the always enjoyable Cantina at Pepper Place. I could legitimately eat Mexican food just about every day of the week and be happy, but Cantina's food always has something a little extra special going on. Maybe it's Chef Jorge Castro's family magic touch, or maybe it's the freshness of the ingredients, often from Alabama farmers, mixed with popular and inspired dishes. Cantina goes beyond tacos and nachos (though they do those well). It's flavorful, exciting, and satisfying food all at the same time.
For the $20 BRW menu I had some help in the form of my husband and children, which means I got to try twice the specialties I would have on my own. It's a tough job, but someone has to do it. We started off with chips and salsa and chips and queso. The salsa is mildly spicy but has a smoky depth of flavor that makes it stand out. And though we opted out of the chorizo in the queso for the kids, the large bowl of thick, melty cheese made everyone happy.
You have a range of choices for the entree, but I wanted to try the Churrasco Steak, for something different, and I chose rice and beans for my side. The thinly sliced steak came served on a bed of saffron rice and refried beans and was topped with tomatoes, onions, cilantro, and queso fresco. The fresh toppings brightened and complimented the nicely charred steak, and with the delicately spiced rice and beans, the total effect offered just about every flavor you'd want from Mexican food in one, perfect bite.
My husband chose the Chicken Enchiladas and spicy slaw for his entree and was generous enough to share with me. Coated with the traditional red sauce and cheese, these hearty enchiladas were also topped with a generous drizzle of creama, fresh cilantro, and avocado slices. Yum. The slaw lived up to it's spicy moniker but was a great, crunchy pairing with the cheesy chicken. I'm looking foward to having both of these dishes again, even though I knew tearing me away from my favorite fish and veggie tacos and Cuban sandwich would be a hard sell.
Dessert was epic. Since we had two slots to fill, we chose the Churros and the Chocolate Bread Pudding. The crispy fried churros were done in the classic style, rolled in cinnamon sugar, but the thick caramel drizzle on top was a nice added touch. Soft, sweet, and a respectably decadent end on their own. But we didn't stop there! The Chocolate Bread Pudding was so fudgy and delicious. Topped with the same caramel and a sprinkle of raisins, the pudding was positively stuffed with chocolate and made for some very happy tummies.
One of my favorite things about Cantina, other than the food, are how supportive they are of local farmers and the Urban Food Project. They have regular orders for things like local honey from Pure AL Honey, tomatoes from Hamm Farm, and sweet potatoes from Haynes and Sons in Cullman. “I can’t think of anything else I’d want to do,” says Clark Haynes, a third-generation farmer. “It makes me feel good to know that I’m growing something that’s so good for people.” He studies the trends and science of vegetable cultivation carefully, saying, “We’re always finding better ways and better varieties to grow.” Neighbors come to his farm every fall to stock up on sweet potatoes for the holidays. “People wanting local food from family farms has made a big difference. I didn’t know if we’d see that in my lifetime. It’s a real good change.”
Cantina is known for being a cool spot. Their food truck is a regular at the breweries and numerous Birmingham events, and the location in the Martin Biscuit Company building is full of fun and interesting metal sculptures, skull artwork, and bright lanterns. The margaritas and beers are always cold, and the staff could not be friendlier. Drop in this week for lunch or dinner and take advantage of the awesome specials.
A proud Birmingham, Alabama native, Emily Brown has long been in on the secret that Birmingham is an incredible food town. When she’s not writing about food, restaurants, and purveyors for Birmingham Restaurant Week, she’s out enjoying new culinary adventures, whether in one of the city’s restaurants or from her own kitchen. Raised equally on a diet of storytelling and great, Southern food, Emily is also the author of Birmingham Food: A Magic City Menu, a book about the history of food and restaurants in Birmingham from The History Press.