Spices of Life

Fresh and Compelling Flavors Sparkle at Mexicali Cantina

By April Bartel | Photography by Turner Photography Studio | Posted on 10.10.17 – Dining, Food & Drink

Done right, South-of-the-Border cuisine is a feast for every sense. It cools, crunches, tingles and sizzles, sending out ethereal tendrils of steam spiked with intoxicating scents. Each plate mirrors the riot of bold colors associated with our southern neighbors’ traditional clothing, architecture and uniquely stylized art. This exuberant spirit is alive and well at Mexicali Cantina in the Patrick Street Shopping Center as proclaimed by the brilliant blue and yellow of its freshly painted façade.

The restaurant recently celebrated its 17th anniversary, proof that it must be doing something right inside, too. According to marketing coordinator/restaurant manager Milton Hernandez, its longevity speaks volumes. “The customers keep us alive. If we didn’t treat them right, we wouldn’t be here.” He says Mexicali Cantina is something of an outlier for its size, location and elevated menu. “When people think of Mexican restaurants, they are more likely to envision a little hole in the wall. They usually don’t think upscale,” Hernandez says. He adds, “People don’t expect to find such a restaurant in a strip mall either.”

The surprise inside is a larger-than-expected floor plan with four well-appointed dining rooms swathed in sunny yellow or rosy peach with crisp white accents. The entry foyer models a Mexican courtyard, complete with stucco walls, adobe roof tiles, arched doorways and trickling fountain. Each room is named in honor of one of Mexico’s destination cities. “Monterey” is opposite the front door, while “Acapulco” features a bar/lounge, with “Jalisco” and “Cancun” to the left. Rooms feature faux window accents and landscape paintings that give the space a warm feeling, as if gazing out from a hacienda. There is a cozy alcove off the Monterey dining room that is often requested for date nights. Hernandez points out that the bold, large-scale paintings, such as the impressionistic portrait of surrealist Frida Kahlo, are the work of a local artist in celebration of Mexican style and subject matter.

Compartmentalized rooms lend the large restaurant an air of intimacy. Hernandez says, “That’s why we do such good business with parties and events averaging between 20 to 50 people [such as] wedding rehearsals, family gatherings, birthdays.” Guests can celebrate in relative privacy. “When we get closer to the holidays, we get plenty of company parties.”

Viva Sabor!

Mexicali Cantina’s menu hits all the highlights of popular Mexican cuisine, such as tacos, enchiladas, burritos and crispy flautas. Hernandez insists that customers can count on getting the highest quality ingredients. “Everything is made here, our salsa, sauces and sour cream.” The restaurant is known for its tableside guacamole presentation. This playful option allows diners to customize the meal-crowning component. Here, creamy flesh of Haas avocados is scooped from pebbled jackets into a stone bowl. Customers choose additions such as red onion, tomato, cilantro or jalapeno and other seasonings. “Some people like more salt than others. Some people like it spicier. … It’s fun to watch the person make it,” says Hernandez.

The menu’s most popular dish is the classic taco salad. Hernandez, admits, “It’s my favorite, too. I eat it most every day. It’s simple and tastes good and it’s fast.” Fresh lettuce is served in a crispy shell with the house-made sour cream, juicy tomatoes and chicken or beef. “Fajitas are a close runner-up.” That dish is a plentiful portion of meat and veggies served with attention-getting flair on sizzling iron platters held aloft. The smell is hard to resist.

For something out of the ordinary, Mexicali Cantina includes plentiful seafood options and cuisine from other Latin American countries and Spain. The lomo saltado, top quality filet mignon sautéed with red wine, vegetables and sweet, starchy plantains served with rice and beans, is a “must try” according to Hernandez, who rolls his eyes toward the heavens in describing the dish. The mariscada, a hearty seafood soup, perfect for fall and winter, also comes highly recommended. “We have a pretty extensive menu, so it’s hard to pick.”

Specialties from Peru, like marisco salteado with steak and seafood, and El Salvador (occasionally offered home-style pupusas) make appearances alongside Maryland’s own cream of crab soup. Pollo asado (roasted chicken) pairs with Caribbean marinade and sweet Spanish onions. Specials add variety while showcasing the chef’s creativity. A recent recipe featured teriyaki chicken served taco style.

For a complete meal, add a slice of super-moist tres leches cake or luscious chocolate mousse and a specialty margarita. Hernandez can’t part with their secret recipe, but he shares that the margaritas are crafted with more than a few ingredients, making them complex and flavorful. For a nonalcoholic taste sensation, try the El Salvadorian-style horchata or fruity marañón (cashew) juice.

Mexicali Cantina is part of an even bigger success story. It falls under the umbrella of Urbana Hospitality Corporation, an organization with five other restaurants: Cacique with locations in Frederick and Hagerstown; the original El Mariachi Restaurant in Rockville, its sister location in Frederick and a variation in Rehoboth Beach, Del. Several partners work together overall, but Mexicali Cantina was started by chef José Hernandez (no relation) who invited his friend and El Mariachi founder, José Perez (Milton Hernandez’s father), to join the venture a few months later. The group’s most recent foray into Hagerstown shows that regional diners are still hungry for more. Their website teases future franchising opportunities. With a spot-on mission, to “make everyone happy,” it’s safe to say that Mexicali Cantina is keeping “taco Tuesday” alive and well … and salmon al Cancun Wednesday … duck a la Sevillana Thursday … and paella Friday.