Vibrant Flavor
Familiar yet rewarding Mexican dishes await patrons of Cantina Feliz
by Brian Freedman

The most remarkable aspect of Fort Washington’s Cantina Feliz is the fact that it doesn’t try to be something it’s not: It doesn’t peddle in Mexican kitsch, and it refuses to pander to a lowest common denominator of South of the Border faux-authenticity.


Having grown up in the area, less than 10 minutes from this sprawling restaurant housed in the space that had been the short-lived Alison Two, this fact alone constitutes a remarkable step forward in the northwestern suburbs’ dining scene. What I mean is this: Cantina Feliz serves the kind of straightforward, smartly conceived and generally well-executed food that would be perfectly at home in the city. Too often, restaurateurs who cut their teeth downtown and then move out to the ’burbs tend to err on the side of dumbing their food down rather than challenging guests.


Cantina Feliz doesn’t fall into that trap.


This makes sense, of course: The team behind the Cantina—Tim Spinner and Brian Sirhal, both alums of the wildly successful Jose Garces Group—had a ringside seat for one of the most important food revolutions in Philadelphia’s dining history. And the experience seems to have left its imprint on them: It is possible, they’ve internalized, to let simple regional preparations speak for themselves.

If you cook it well, in other words, they will come.


Guacamole is a good example of this: It’s nothing fancy, nothing really out of the box—just a balanced mash of avocado, cilantro, jalapeno, onion, tomato and seasoning, all vibrating with an intense hit of lime’s acidity, brought to the table in a massive traditional molcajete, the Mexican mortar made of volcanic rock. And while thicker tortilla chips would make it easier to scoop the hefty portion you’ll want to, that’s a small quibble in context.


A bigger concern, perhaps, is the upselling of it. Upon being greeted by our server, we were casually asked if we’d like some guacamole while we looked at the menu—without mention of the fact that it would later appear on the bill for $9.95.


Cost, actually, could be something of a concern for some: The food and drink add up fast if you’re not careful—the city pedigree comes with city prices here. Still, as long as you go with an understanding of this, you’ll actually be well rewarded for your efforts. A special seafood chowder proved to be perfect for the season, current heat wave notwithstanding. That’s no easy trick for a soup even with a touch of cream, but here, that addition was used to amp up the natural creaminess of the corn, which itself was matched well with grouper, generous lumps of crab and a subtle seam of spice heat.


As at so many of the Garces Group’s restaurants in town, the flat-top plancha here is used to excellent effect. Nickel-sized coins of grilled octopus spoke of their sweet-briny origins but were limned with the nutty sear of the cooking surface’s heat. Grass-fed New York strip steak—a mammoth portion from Creekstone Farms in Arkansas City, Kan., enough for both dinner and a hefty lunch the next day—came sliced down and tender and ringing with the character of a glorious wet adobo, an aggression with the seasoning I wish more restaurants would be brave enough to attempt.


The line of parsley-bright chimichurri running along the top of the slices was very well executed, but the real highlight of the plating—and the gutsiest move of the menu—was the serving of the bone marrow creamed spinach right next to it. As you work your way through the flesh, the amber-toned and dizzyingly rich slick runs from the greens to the meat, lending each bite the ambrosial heft that only marrow can offer.


Tacos were less dramatic, more straightforward (and also a solid deal at less than $13): The grouper baton was fried perfectly and encased in a snappy nacho and plantain chip carapace, the chipotle slaw a pleasantly tingling addition. But I couldn’t keep from feeling that it was missing something—more seasoning for the fish, perhaps, or more heat for the slaw.


Still, it was a great partner for a margarita, which was perhaps half a step too sweet on its own but a lovely accompaniment to the taco. For a cocktail that’s better on its own, I’d stick with something like the cerveza de margarita whose combination of Bell’s Oberon, tequila, orange liqueur and lime juice provides a lovely, sneakily higher-octane way to start.


To end a meal, on the other hand, make sure to save room for dessert. The warm tart of guava and apple has a distinctly homespun appeal; it tastes like my mother’s kitchen smelled when I was a kid in the house, all toasty and fruity-sweet and perfect. Mexican chocolate crema, on the other hand, boasts more of a refined profile. For all its technical accomplishment, however, I couldn’t stop going back to the fistful of caramel popcorn off to the side, the peanuts and ancho distributed perfectly, the balance of sweet and savory impeccable.


That, it seems to me, is where Cantina Feliz hits its sweet spot: At the intersection of well-honed professional technique brought to bear on generally familiar flavors. It’s not flawless, but it is an addition we’ve been waiting for in these parts for a long time. I wish it had been there when I was growing up in the area.


Cantina Feliz

424 S. Bethlehem Pike, Fort Washington



Brian Freedman is a food and wine writer based in Philadelphia.

Felicia Perretti is a freelance photographer based in Philadelphia.