Cantina Laredo, Syracuse, N.Y.

Source: Syracuse.com

The plan was to go to whatever restaurant in The Canyon section of DestinyUSA looked less busy. We did not want to wait or fight Happy Hour drunks. There are four dining options in the first floor area: P.F. Chang’s, The Melting Pot, Gordon Biersch and Cantina Laredo. The weather was horrific, so there were no waits at any of the hostess stands.

We want to keep dinner under $100. Cross The Melting Pot off.

I went to a Chang’s 10+ years ago and thought it was good. The Wife isn’t a big Chinese food fan. Cross that off.

I have eaten at Gordon Biersch’s Atlanta outlet. It was fine. The Wife was indifferent. I went to Cantina Laredo for lunch in the fall and enjoyed it. The Wife smiled.

Mexican it was.

There are two important things to note about Cantina Laredo — a 100+ store chain that is described as the P.F. Chang’s of Mexican food. First, the waitstaff is not fast. I noticed that lunch and dinner service is not speedy. I think this is deliberate, revolving around the idea that mealtime in Mexico is a celebration of food, not necessarily an act of survival, speed and convenience. Second, there are three distinct seating areas. The main dining room is a combination of tables and booths with low light and the thumping bass of Mexican music overhead. The bar area has more people noise and traffic and is very bright. A terrace of two- and four-seat tables extends outwards into the mall, exposing you to the elements from a nearby exit door and the natural noise of commerce and the general public. We were seated in the dining room, which was my preference.

The double-sided menu was presented drink-side up, with a host of high-end margaritas, sangrias and mojitos made with middle-shelf liquor (top-shelf upgrades were available). Our waitress told us that this was a brand new slate of drinks and that things were moving slowly from the bar. I opted for my Mexican beer of choice, Tecate. The Wife got a blood orange sangria packed the tartness of the fruit but a dominant ginger flavor, thanks to a shot of alcoholic ginger beer. I didn’t care for it, but The Wife said it was aces.

2013-02-01 at 17-46-16

We opted for tableside guacamole service, one of the trademarks of the restaurant. A roving cart comes table to table to mix lime juice, avocados, guacamole, adobo, tomatoes, cilantro, jalepeños and onions. We ordered ours pepper-free, since we’re wimps. The first time I ordered this, the guac valet gashed her finger open. We went blood free here, though she finished the guacamole and left us without chips. The fresh and tasty green dip sat in the center of our table for a full five minutes before we saw our waitress and our chips.

2013-02-01 at 17-59-31Dinner arrived as we finished the guacamole. The menu features house specialties including carne asada, fish and fajitas, as well as an assortment of tacos and enchiladas. The Wife’s Enchiladas Veracruz featured chicken, spinach and monterey jack wrapped in a corn tortilla, and topped with marinated purple cabbage and roasted red pepper, queso fresco, tomatillo sauce and tortilla strips. The Wife cast the veggies aside as a distraction, moved the soggy tortillas to her side plate and concentrated on the main course.

2013-02-01 at 17-59-34Her distraction was actually filler for my enchiladas. The curious description of Enchiladas de Camarones read, “Shrimp, monterey jack cheese and roasted peppers in enchiladas on vegetables topped with sour cream poblano sauce.” I received the shrimp, cheese and peppers, plus all of the vegetables that The Wife had. The filler took away from the shrimp, overpowering the crustacean. The sour cream-poblano sauce was both aesthetically beautiful and delicious. Both entrees came with a side of cilantro and herb rice and black beans.

Where P.F. Chang’s and The Cheesecake Factory overwhelm with portion size, Cantino Laredo does not. The entrees were filling, but not paralyzing. We passed on dessert, though we let our server give us the rundown: mango tres leches cake, flan, Mexican apple pie and Mexican brownie.

The Mission remains one of my favorite local restaurants and, personally, I think that their smaller dining room and focus on local ingredients translates to better food. All of that said, this stands tall as the best dining option at Destiny USA not named “Koto.”

Cantina Laredo is located on the first floor of The Canyon at DestinyUSA, One Destiny Center, Syracuse, N.Y. Reservations are not accepted. Dinner, with cocktails and tip, was $55.

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