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Tortilla Press Cantina
7716 Maple Avenue
Pennsauken, Camden County, New Jersey
(856) 488-0005

By The Artful Diner
May 27, 2008


Yes, chef/proprietor Mark Smith and his wife and partner, Lydia Cipriana, have done it again. Just like the couple's other establishment, Tortilla Press in Collingswood, their newest venture, Tortilla Press Cantina, is, like its elder sibling, an easy-going, frolicsome fiesta. The same jazzy colors are much in evidence, as is the incredibly high-energy level when the joint is jumpin' -- which appears to be most of the time.

But there is one big difference: Whereas the Press is BYOB, the Cantina sports a comfortably bustling bar scene. So before settling in at table, you might want to grab a seat and tie into a margarita ($6.50 - $8.50), specialty cocktail ($6.00 - $7.00), or have a go at the tequila shots ($6.50 - $20.00). The wine list is bare bones brief and not terribly exciting, but the 1/2 pitchers of red and white sangria ($9.50) go down mighty easy.

The food here is not "authentic" Mexican per se. Mr. Smith describes it as "Mexican influenced gourmet cuisine"; and his description is quite apt. He utilizes only fresh local ingredients wherever possible and then artfully imbues them with seasonings from south of the border -- and the results are impressive. Those who are familiar with Mr. Smith's Collingswood establishment will, of course, note some menu similarities... and also some appetizing variations on the theme.

The most straightforward way to begin a meal here is with the made-to-order guacamole ($7.00) -- a sensuous blend of smooth, ripe avocado, diced tomato, jalapeño, onion, splash of lime, and hint of cilantro -- accompanied by the addictive house-fried chips. Another sure winner is the nachos del casa ($6.50), a generous pile of tortilla chips topped with pickled jalapeños, pico de gallo, Mexican crème, and a generous helping of melted Chihuahua cheese (a yellow cheese -- also called queso menonita after the Mennonite communities of northern Mexico that first produced it -- not unlike mild cheddar in flavor and consistency).

If you're in the mood for something with a bit more pizzazz, however, the blue corn meal-crusted calamari ($8.00) is a great option. The rings of squid are remarkably tender, and the jalapeño dipping sauce provides just enough zip to sufficiently stimulate the palate.

The special taco salad ($7.50) -- ground beef, mixed lettuces, olives, pico de gallo, tomatoes, guacamole, and Mexican crème -- is another sure winner... ditto the chicken, chorizo, and rajas quesadilla ($8.00).

In point of fact, all the appetizers are up to the mark. But the star of the show, as I mentioned in my review of Tortilla Press, continues to be the original ceviche ($9.50), the classic lime-marinated combo of sea scallops, salmon, and shrimp. And don't forget to avail yourself of a few sprinkles of the accompanying shaker, an amalgam of chile de arbol, which is guaranteed to add a tantalizing touch of heat.

When it comes to your main course selection, enchiladas ($13.00 - $ 14.00), fajitas ($15.00 - $18.00), and burritos ($13.00 - $16.50) abound. But the specialties of the house are definitely where the action is... like the award-winning pulled pork with chipotle peanut BBQ sauce ($16.00), for example. The meat is marvelously tender and is teamed with a pillow of addictive chipotle mashed potatoes and impossible to resist chile cornbread. Worth the price of admission.

And the coconut-habañero shrimp ($18.00) is another entrée that keeps patrons happy. When it comes to coconut encrusted shrimp, the problem is invariably too much crust and too little crustacean. But here the coating is applied judiciously, and the heat of the habañero chile is the perfect foil for the sweetness of the coconut. The sweet-spicy coconut & pepper confetti salsa makes a most suitable accompaniment... as do the crunchy green beans and red rice.

Fish also holds a prominent place on Cantina's menu. In addition to the excellent tuna with pineapple sun-dried chile salsa ($19.50) and grilled salmon filet with caramelized mango BBQ sauce ($19.00), there are always a number of interesting daily specials. Recently encountered, for example, was the opakapaka ($19.00), a variety of snapper found off the Hawaiian Islands. The flesh is pink but turns white when cooked. The rendition offered here was pan seared and exhibited a delicate flavor enhanced with a black bean & corn medley and light seafood broth.

Even the lowly chicken breast is turned out with style. It may be sautéed and finished with a zesty tequila lime butter ($15.00); or, as an evening special, lightly breaded, pan fried, and consummated with a chipotle-spinach cream sauce ($16.50).

For dessert, the churro sundae ($6.00), a fried dough pastry topped with cinnamon & sugar and embellished with ice cream and cajeta, a thickened syrup made with sweetened caramelized milk, is a solid choice. Other recommendations include the Mexican brownie ($6.00) -- espresso & cinnamon flavored brownie wedges arranged vertically around an epicenter of ice cream -- and the luscious banana burrito ($6.50).

The only semi-downer may prove to be the service, which is very much dependent upon the luck of the draw. On one occasion, it was snappy and knowledgeable; on another, our gum-chewing waitress appeared to be inordinately preoccupied with matters other than service.

There is absolutely no question, however, that the Tortilla Press Cantina serves up an impressive array of Mexican-inspired cuisine at reasonable prices in a most convivial atmosphere. If you're on the prowl for good food and a good time, this colorful, energetic eatery is hard to beat.

Cuisine: Mexican-inspired
Hours: Mon - Thurs, 11:00 a.m. - 10:00 p.m., bar/lounge open until 11:00 p.m.; Fri & Sat, 11:00 a.m. - 11:00 p.m., bar/lounge open until 12:00 midnight; Sun, 11:00 a.m. - 9:00 p.m., bar/lounge open until 10:00 p.m.
Credit Cards: AX, MC, V, Discover
Attire: Casual
Reservations: Recommended, especially on weekends
Parking: Onsite
Alcohol: License
Price: Moderate
Handicapped Accessible: Yes
Website: www.tortillapresscantina.com

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