A Fresca Outlook

Newly arrived Cantina Laredo boosts Tivoli Village with its moderately priced, neighborhood-friendly Mexican fare

Tivoli Village started slowly, but things have picked up of late, and the mall, which still feels like a poor relation of Boca Park, should gather steam in 2013. I like their chances.

Part of my optimism is based on a number of new restaurants slated to open. Angelo Sosa is about to launch an Asian fusion restaurant, Poppy Den; and creative L.A. chef Sam Marvin will reveal a steakhouse called Echo & Rig sometime in spring.

You won’t starve in the meantime, though. Ray Nisi’s Bottles & Burgers is one option, View Wine Bar & Kitchen is a second, while Brio and Café Leone are holding steady. But for me, the best current choice is the recently opened Cantina Laredo, part of a chain with more than 100 locations from Texas to Dubai.

Although the cuisine is Mexican, the design feels Japanese, thanks to lots of white birch paneling and floor-to-ceiling glass windows. This is a handsome, rambling space, with a bar, a large outdoor patio furnished with fancy tables and chairs that aren’t much used during the cold months, an abundance of sculptures and a number of lithographs by 20th-century artists, such as Joan Miró.

Max’s menu picks

Tacos de Barbacoa, $14.45.
Tacos al Pastor, $12.55.
Enchilada de Carne, $9.75.
Fiesta de la Parilla, $21.95.
Mexican Apple Pie, $6.75

You don’t have to stare long at that weird metal cart contraption (a sculpture, more like) being wheeled around from table to table. The gimmicky Top Shelf Guacamole cart, which the servers push relentlessly, is stocked with glass jars containing minced peppers and other components made to mash into peeled avocado. Do you want some? Maybe, but I prefer the two complimentary house salsas. That said, be careful not to fill up on the endless baskets of warm house tortilla chips, which will be rapidly replenished by the friendly servers here.

One of the advantages of dining in a chain restaurant is how accommodating management is authorized to be. I ordered the chile con queso—a bowl of melted, lifeless cheese—and the dish was magically removed from my check when I suggested—merely suggested—to the server that it wasn’t what anyone was expecting.

Furthermore, the team tries hard to please. You’re asked repeatedly how you like any given dish, and if you so much as wrinkle your nose, someone will offer to substitute it for something else. Happily, that is rarely the case: This cooking is solid, Americanized to some extent, but generally quite flavorful.

Tacos de barbacoa, for instance, is made with slow-simmered, meltingly tender brisket, and no one at my table minded that barbacoa almost always means lamb in Mexico. An excellent pastor (spiced pork) gets its understated sweetness from diced pineapple. Enchiladas de carne have a delicious picadillo (ground beef) filling, and come blanketed in a rich, dark sauce laced with chilies. That same filling graces the chile relleno, which three of us fought over.

Look to Especialidades for Fiesta de la Parilla, my favorite dish in the house. A sizzling-hot metal plate arrives, topped with shrimp, carnitas, quail, beef and chicken with onions and peppers. Guacamole, sour cream and chopped tomatoes come with it, as well, in a little side dish concealing a pile of tortillas. Is it the same guacamole as servers make at the table? Not quite, but who cares?

The sizzling plate also figures in the two big-deal desserts, one called Mexican Apple Pie, the other Mexican Brownie. Of course, neither is Mexican in the slightest, but the servers make a big production out of pouring brandy-butter on them, which melts and bubbles on cue. This can’t be bad. Cantina Laredo isn’t too bad, either.

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