Chef Tim Spinner chose not to break too much new culinary ground when he opened Cantina Feliz in Fort Washington, PA, last January. And his restaurant's concept — contemporary Mexican food, polished-yet-rustic surroundings, approachable price points and plenty of drinks — follows a trail that's been blazed by others. Two giants of the Philadelphia restaurant world perfected this formula years ago, and Spinner has worked for both of them. Ace restaurateur Steven Starr got it started with his landmark El Vez in 2003; Iron Chef Jose Garces upped the ante at Distrito in 2008.
So why mess with success — especially when it's your first time out as chef/owner? After all, Spinner had helped define the basic concept while at El Vez (as sous chef) and Distrito (as chef de cuisine). His Cantina Feliz business partner/beverage guru, Brian Sirhal, is a Distrito alum, too. It was tempting for these two to go crazy and show the world what they could do when they went out on their own. But they stuck close to the script instead.
Smart move. Spinner and Sirhal saw something Starr and Garces had overlooked. El Vez and Distrito are located in downtown Philly. Each draws a mix of urban dwellers, nearby workers and tourists. Spinner and Sirhal figured they could make this sort of hip downtown restaurant work just as well if they opened one up way out in the suburbs.
The pair found a building in Fort Washington that formerly housed chef Alison Barshak's upscale Alison Two. Here the partners hoped to attract the upscale demographic that lives and/or works nearby.
The idea was that these folks already drop big money at places like El Vez and Distrito, only they have to drive a half-hour-plus each way to downtown Philadelphia and find a place to park when they want to drop it. Spinner and Sirhal decided to bring that downtown experience right to their suburban door.
Which may be why Cantina Feliz (the name translates to “happy saloon”) has struck a nerve with foodies and fun-seekers alike. The most eye-popping item on the menu — and far and away the costliest — is the Cochinito, which goes for $36 per person and requires a minimum table size of four diners. It's a whole roasted suckling pig served with grilled asparagus, plantains, grilled corn, black beans, refried beans, salsa roja, salsa verde and tortillas. It has to be ordered three days in advance, and many people do.
The rest of the menu offers a blend of well-crafted Mexican standbys and more adventurous fare. Starter items on the “antojitos” section include basics like guacamole ($8.95, a few dollars more if seasonal fruit or crab meat is blended in); nachos de la casa and crab fundido. But there are plenty of more creative items such as a pair of huaraches, flatbread-like items available in either the artichoke (san simon crema, poblanos, truffles, cotija) or Cubano (jamon, Swiss cheese, pickles, radish, Dijon crema) varieties. Ceviche verde (hiramasa, honeydew vinaigrette, kiwi jalapeno, lime sorbet) is a big seller, and the adventurous can sample the pulpo ala planxa, i.e., octopus served with potato and chile pequin.
A four-item soup and salad list is complemented by a four-item entrée list that includes black bass, a New York strip steak, short ribs and a mole poblano chicken.
A straightforward taco lineup of (five in all: baja fish, carnitas, mushroom, chorizo and an al carbon served with a choice of chicken, beef or shrimp) and three enchiladas options (chicken, squash blossom or crab) finish off the menu.
The bar pumps out margaritas and sangria with the best of them and offers a smart wine list, six artisan beers on tap and 50 varieties of tequila.
For kids, a “little amigos” menu offers a mac & cheese taco; a peanut butter, jelly and fluff quesadilla; or a chicken and cheese quesadilla for $7.95. A beverage, a side of black beans and a scoop of vanilla ice cream are included in the family-friendly price.
So how has this suburban venture fared? Cantina Feliz has been so slammed its partners are already scouting locations for Taqueria Feliz, a stripped-down version of the barely-six-month-old original.
If you're a chef or manager who's about to go out on his or her own, take a lesson from Spinner and Sirhal: Don't reinvent the wheel. Instead, go with what you know, put your personal spin on it and find an underserved area where you think it could work.