If the Be Curious sign out front doesn’t pique your interest, the aura of Cantina Panaderia will. With the Balinesian Buddha carved from teak holding offerings of money or flowers and reaching over seven feet high in the corner, the intricately carved piece from Indonesia -that was once a pagoda and is now used as a coffee bar, and the Italian plaster walls with red, velvet drapes – you know you’re in for an extraordinary experience. And if the atmosphere was any indication – and the fact that everyone who walks into Cantina feels like they’ve discovered their very own Shangri-La - I knew the food was going to be sublime.
This Asian-cool space is dedicated to “hip-comfort food” created by chef/owner Isabel Cruz. If you don’t know what hip-comfort food is, think of being nourished, body and soul. Think of the dishes that make you feel warm on a cold day, cool on a hot day, healthy on a sick day, and happy on a sad one. And then add her touch…sweet coconut milk, cinnamon-star anise, mojos - Puerto Rican style sauces, sweet plantains, wasabi sauces, and just a taste of spicy peanut sauce.
Cantina Panaderia has seen a steady rise in devoted regulars – a pattern akin to her other restaurant in La Jolla, the Coffee Cup. It seems that everyone who meets Isabel instantly falls for her and her food. Blending Latin with Asian influences, Isabel has come up with truly unique dishes. She has paired flavors in such a way as to indelibly mark them as her own; such is the effect of having an intuitive way with food that one doesn’t often see.
Isabel has been creating beautiful and delicious dishes for over a decade here in San Diego. These days, with two successful restaurants in San Diego, one in Chico, and one in Ashland, Oregon, Isabel has taken on the role of author as well as chef. Her cookbook, entitled Bite This!, will be out this October and will feature a myriad of recipes she whips up everyday in her kitchen, not to mention some cooking basics that will make even the most inept cook feel like a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America.
Some of the dishes are traditional, almost. But most of them involve flavors and colors you would never find together. We started with the Plantains with Caviar – sweet, plantain fritters topped with sour cream and caviar – and the Ahi Wontons about which I had heard several people rave – wonton crisps topped with seared Ahi, strips of fresh avocado, and drizzled with sweet soy and wasabi cream sauces.
For the entrée we had the Flat Iron Steak with Mojo Pico –char grilled skirt steak served with portobello mushrooms marinated in soy ginger, cilantro-garlic mojo pico and roasted red and sweet potatoes. The steak was perfect, the mojo cool and a bit spicy, and the potatoes were like sweet little treats. If want something a little more traditional, you could try the rotisserie chicken served either Latin style - with black beans, brown rice, crisp, salted plantains, and chipotle sauce - or Asian style – with coconut-jasmine rice, edamame, and peanut sauce. Either way, this chicken – thanks to the smoky, delicious rub - is far from your run-of-the-mill poultry.
Another item on the Cantina menu that I’d been hearing about for months are the bowls…Dragon Bowl, Brazil Bowl, or the Buddha Bowl just to name a few. We tried the Buddha Bowl – hot coconut milk broth, fresh lemongrass, shitake mushrooms, vegetables, and fresh udon noodles to which you can add grilled tofu, chicken, or steak. Not only did it look beautiful but the sweetness of the coconut milk with the savory flavors of the mushrooms and steak was incredible.
Although one of Isabel’s main tenets in the kitchen is to create delicious – but healthy - food, she doesn’t let that stop her from coming up with some decadent desserts. We had the Flourless Chocolate Cake garnished with ganache and raspberry puree – a dense, rich, amazing cake that will satisfy any chocolate junkie – and my absolute favorite, Bananas Cantina – baked bananas swimming in spiced rum and orange juice, lightly sprinkled with chopped peanuts, and served with vanilla ice cream. And I don’t even like bananas.
Cantina Panaderia is still relatively young and, as such, is still growing. They are currently in the process of getting their beer and wine license – a particularly tricky process since the freeze on new licenses in Pacific Beach – as well as laying the foundation for Isabel’s kitchen ideal. Soon she will be offering her Chef’s Table experience: a combination cooking class and delicious dinner with the chef of your choice in the kitchen of Cantina. Not only could you learn a few things, but it will be a great twist on the traditional dinner party.