Since I am no longer college age, I typically do not frequent restuarants in the University district as the food can be “dodgy”, as my English friend Stuart would say. This past weekend, we ventured out to the Cantina Lounge, which is adjacent to California State University Fullerton. The restaurant offers “Modern-Mexican” cuisine and a couple “Asian-Fusion” dishes, like the Shanghai Burrito. The restaurant’s facilities are very large, with a main dining room, bar and a night-club. Overall, my experience venturing into the University District was positive at the Cantina Lounge.
The ambiance of the restaurant is sophisticated and relaxed with a modern twist on traditional Spanish design, including rusted steel, dark wood and leather and flickering candles. The design also included some modern art flare, giving the restaurant a modern and hip vibe. The facility was covered in flat panel televisions; I think I counted 50+ televisions. Since this restaurant caters to the sport’s bar crowd and college students, these televisions deinitely play well to their target clientele. The restaurant was clean and well maintained, from the dinning room to the restroom. When we came to the Cantina Lounge, we were told that the restaurant turns into a nightclub after 10:00. We arrived at 8:20 to a mostly empty restaurant, but around 9:30 then we saw a steady stream of college aged customers pouring in. The Cantina Louge was obviously a happening spot as the girls came ready to party in their barely-there clothing left over from the Electric Daisy Carnival and the dudes sporting their finest douche bag getups or favorite Affliction t-shirt. I started to feel like Will Ferrell in Old School for a few minutes, watching the college kids rolling in.
The staff of the restaurant was young, energetic and hip. Although they didn’t have a “professional wait staff” , their crew brought an eagerness to please that boosted the overall mood of our dining experience. Our waiter appeared once we were settled and quickly served our drinks. The only flaw in terms of the service was the bad timing of the appetizer.
We ordered several dishes to capture each of their main styles, Traditional Mexican, Modern-Mexican and Asian-Fusion. Below is a summary of what we ordered and our review. For this meal, my co-reviewer is Stuart, who moved from England to Fullerton 12 years ago. Stuart brings an international and locals perspective to this review
Ahi Tuna and Guacamole Stack - This dish was a fusion style dish that combines a classic Japanese Ahi Poke and Mexican guacamole layer dip. A leaf of romaine lettuce acted as the platform of this dish, holding up a layer of guacamole, Ahi tuna and garnishments. This dish was served with tortilla chips and quick-fried corn tortilla strips tossed in a spicy Kung Pao sauce. The guacamole on the bottom was actually quite good, with a creamy consistency and slight lemon acidity and light sizzle from jalapenos. Next, raw cubes of Ahi tuna marinated in a spicy miso yaki, were stacked on top of the guacamole. The micro greens, lime crème fresh and crispy strips added on top to provide contrasting textures and flavors to the spicy guacamole and Ahi. Overall this was my favorite dish of the night as it was fresh, creative and possessed a WOW! factor. Everyone at the table agreed that they would order this dish again. We all gave this dish a 4.5 out of 5 for its fresh flavor and creative use of ingredients and flavors.
Chicken “Baja Taco” a la carte- This corn-tortilla taco contained marinated grilled chicken breast chunks, spicy purple cabbage slaw, smoked gouda cheese, lime crème fresh and a chipotle salsa. Lola, my other guest reviewer, described this dish as “An interesting dish, it possessed an experimental combination of ingredients, that generally turned out successful”. The cool and creamy balance provided by the lime-cream and gouda’s, balanced the spicy flavors of the salsa and slaw. The dish also had some smokey flavors from both the smoked-gouda and the chipotle salsa. The dish was savory and generally had a good flavor. Lola gave this dish a 3.5.
Electric Tacos- This dish consisted of two soft tacos on corn tortillas, Mexican rice and refried beans and carrot escabeche salad. The “Electric Taco” contained two types of meats, carne asada (steak) and chorizo (spicy Mexican sausage), each providing a different texture and flavor profile. The carne asada was cut into small pieces and had a slightly chewy texture from being cooked well-done (potentially from sitting in the steam table). The chorizo had a soft and loose texture that left a greasy puddle on the bottom of the tortilla. The ratio of carne asada to chorizo was 1 part carne asada to 4 parts chorizo, this balance of meat made the flavor more spicy and pungent than the savory. The taco was topped with spicy/pungent grilled poblamo chilies, sweet caramelized brown onions and melted cheese and a drizzle of crème fresh. When I bit down into this taco, the sweet flavors of the caramelized onions were experienced up front, although the pungent spiciness of the Chorizo quickly took over the palate and the flavor was long lasting. This item received mixed reviews from the table. I thought this dish had too much chorizo and would benefit from a 50/50 ratio of chorizo to carne asada (dare I say even a 75% asada to 25% chorizo). I feel this ratio would have created better flavor balance and less grease. Stuart (my co-reviewer) disagreed with me on this point, he liked the ratio of chorizo to asada, as he liked the spiciness and texture. I gave this dish a score of 3 and Stuart gave it a 3.5.
Chipotle Chicken – This dish consisted of a chicken breast marinated in cilantro and chipotle sauce and sautéed with mushrooms, garlic and cilantro. The chicken was platted with a heavy glaze over the breast. This dish was also served with white rice, smoky black beans, and boiled carrots with a butter glaze. Stuart described the flavors of this dish as having a nice rich flavor that possessed enough intensity to encompass the entire palate. Although, he did note that the flavor of the chicken was very spicy and folks who dont like spicy should avoid this dish. We both gave this dish 3 out of 5. This dish could have been 4 out of 5, if the heat was turned down.
Chili Verde – This dish consisted of a portion of Chili Verde, Mexican rice, refried beans, and slices of avocado. The Chili Verde consisted of chunks and shreds of stewed pork and green chili pieces in a spicy green chili sauce. Chili Verde is one of my favorite dishes. I have my own preferences on how Chili Verde should be prepared (my Grandma’s Michoacán recipe being the gold standard). The flavor of this dish was actually close to spot on with the right balance of spicy to the simmered pork’s sweetness. When you took a mouthful of the Chili Verde by itself, it has a pleasant sizzle on the tongue and had a nose flavor of bay leaves. As for texture, the pork was a little too firm, telling me that the dish was cooked too faster than the 8+ hour traditional slow simmer. We both gave this dish a 3 out of 5.
Sizzling Chicken Fajitas – This dish came out sizzling on a hot iron plate and made me say, “I should have ordered the fajitas!”. This dish consisted of red and green peppers, onions, garlic and strips of freshly carved chicken breast. The peppers and onions were cooked nicely, softened but with a slight crunch. The chicken had a nice savory seaoning that complimented the flavors of the onions. The third guest reviewer and wife Daniele said, ”The overwhelming flavor from this dish was a strong tart flavor, probably from a heavy dosage of lime juice”. You may or may not like this tart flavor of the dish, depending on your preferences. This dish received a 3 out of 5.
My Final Thoughts
Overall, I felt that the food was good for the $12-15 price point on the main dishes. This restaurant is frequented by the 20 something crowd and the food /ambiance /entertainment is perfectly targeted to this demographic. The food at the Cantina Lounge was no doubt delicious and I would come back here again to try other dishes. This is a great place to hang with friends over drinks and perhaps to shake your money maker in the dance club. I am giving the cantina lounge 3.5 out of 5, meaning the restaurant provided an overall good experience and would probably come back here again, perhaps as a prelude to dancing.
Link to The Cantina Lounge Website: www.cantinalounge.com
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