The Cantina | AspenTimes.com

The Cantina

Christina Patterson

There was some serious discussion as to the size of the plates that our food was delivered on. After much estimating, crude measuring and general bickering, we asked a waiter. He didn’t know, but he had an estimate, too. We finally rested on 15 inches in diameter, and we were then able to get back to the actual eating of the stuff that was contained therein.

Now, certainly bigger doesn’t always mean better, I know that. And you know that. But c’mon … 15 inches! Fifteen full inches, too, not with some decorative foo foo inedible garnishes taking up big sections of potential food area, either. No, we’re talking the full 15, baby. Get ready for it!

My companion’s plate was only about a 13, and he just grumbled whenever the conversation inevitably turned back to the size of our plates.

The Cantina has graced the palate of Aspen for over a dozen years now, and remains one of its most popular establishments. Our waitress, Linda, a ten-year veteran of the Cantina, embodied the epitome of the waiting of a table (we all agreed that she should teach seminars to the more disgruntled waitrons in Aspen), she was fun, and funny, and professional, and in no way took anything too seriously. As one who has never done ANYTHING for 10 years, I had to know her secret of longevity. She said, without a trace of sarcasm, that the Cantina was simply a great place to work with great people to work with.

And that, fellow diners, is as important to a good restaurant experience as the quality of the food and the size of the plates.

Oh yeah, the food. The food was hearty, to say the least. The menus are staggeringly exhaustive, so I will have to just give you some highlights, otherwise there would be no room for the comics in this week’s paper.

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Lunch, then: Start with come guacamole. For $5.95 you get a huge scoop that looks like it should cost about $50, given the price of avocados in the store. Nachos are $6.95. There are a heck of a lot of salads for you salad-for-lunch folks, including the Cantina Cobb, Caesar and grilled chicken and pecan, all in the $6 or $7 range. Then you got your enchiladas, quesadillas and burritos; cheese, veggie, chicken, beef, pork, fresh stuff, good stuff, more cheese if you wish with rice and beans and salad and whatever it takes to have you go back to work in dire need of a siesta from food bliss. There are also tacos, fajitas, chile rellenos, burger with fries and huevos rancheros with or without chorizo. Get the idea? If you like Mexican food, you will find what you like here, it’s that simple. Lunches are mostly within the lower end of the $5.95-$9.95 range. There are also, as if that wasn’t enough, two daily lunch specials (M-F) for $5.95, including baby back ribs, seafood chimichanga, the Cantina tamale and a shrimp and spinach quesadilla.

Add to this equation a specialty margarita menu, a nice selection of beers, premium tequilas, desserts (including Death By Chocolate) and a kid’s menu, and what do you get? Well, if you can’t figure it out yourself, then I sure can’t help you.

Apres ski can find you replenishing those lost electrolytes with $2.50 margaritas and drafts and $2 domestic brews. Gotta keep a certain amount of salt in your system, you know.

And then, as happens about that time every night, it is time for dinner. You have probably already chosen your margarita from the specialties, like the Cactus Rita, which contains the fruit of the prickly pear cactus, Gold tequila, triple sec and Cointreau, or the Baja Rita; Curacao, Gold tequila, sweet and sour and lime juice.

Again you probably want to have the guac, if nothing else just for the investment value, but you could also start dinner with black bean dip, an order of flautas or the combination plate: flautas, nachos, cheese quesadilla, guac, sour cream and salsa ($14.95). But be warned, they go big at the Cantina. Better do some stretches before you order.

And on the subject of combinations, there are three combo plates which are very popular. The enchilada is the starting point, and you can combine it with the taco, relleno or tamale, $10.95- $11.95. I had the enchilada and tamale the night we dined there (and then I had it for lunch the next day.) It is a truly wonderful, plentiful, homemade Mexican dish, and I plan to have it again when I am able. My companions, for I had two that evening, had the chile relleno, roasted Anaheim chile, cheese filled and dipped in egg batter and lightly fried, then covered with salsa and a some more cheese ($8.95 for one relleno, $11.95 for 2). It was a light version of the standard heavy relleno (though in no way less satisfying or filling), which made for a much more pleasant evening for all of us.

Companion #2 had the wild game fajitas with the combination of elk, duck and buffalo (though you can have just one if you wish), skillfully prepared and sizzling on the plate and served with guac, sour cream, salsa, black beans and tortillas ($21.95). The game was prepared so well that I don’t think he ever went the “fajita” route, but instead just savored each individual taste. This dish should come with the label, “Caution: Will feed three people easily.” Other dinner specials include the 12 oz ribeye, shrimp relleno, cantina camarones (saut»ed Gulf shrimp) and mole chicken. All dishes are beyond filling, so consider reading the dessert menu first if you have any intentions of desserting that evening. As Linda, waitress extraordinairre, said, while holding the edge of her hand against her forehead, “If you aren’t this full when you leave, I haven’t done my job.”

As with the lunch menu, there are salads, enchiladas, burritos and quesadillas to the point where if it is Mexican food and you want it, they have it. Oh yes, they have it.

OK, you’ve had your margaritas, or other libations from the full bar, your towering mound of guac and your 15 inches of culinary joy…are you ready for Death by Chocolate? Maybe. Depends on how a double chocolate walnut brownie with hot fudge, chocolate ice cream and whipped cream for $4.95 sounds. The caramel custard Flan is also a mighty fine choice, as is the chocolate decadence, strawberries atop that familiar double chocolate walnut brownie and vanilla ice cream, also $4.95. May your deity stand strong beside you.

The Cantina has long been a local’s favorite, and it won’t take long for you to figure out why. It is a fun, friendly environment where you can eat a meal big enough to last you an entire week…even if you are sharing it with someone. Especially if Linda is your waitress.

Viva, Cantina!

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