Talking authentic Mexican fare with Cabana Grill
1. Tell us about Cabana Grill
Cabana Grill serves fresh, authentic Mexican fare that we hand make in the restaurant everyday. We’re a fast casual restaurant, which means that we serve up quality food, quickly, and at an affordable price. We're set up to be flexible based on the needs of our guests and the time they have available. For those on the go, we have a convenient drive-through so you can pick up a meal and be on your way without sacrificing quality or flavor. Or if you decide to dine in with us, you can enjoy everything from a quick 20 minute dining experience to relaxing on our patio for a couple of hours while enjoying our happy hour specials and a nice dinner.
We feature an extensive complimentary self-service salsa bar where you can choose the type of fresh-made salsa you want to pair with your food. We also offer margaritas, domestic beers, and imported Mexican beers.
2. What do you mean by authentic Mexican fare?
All our recipes have been sourced from the interior of Mexico and everything we do is inspired by what is happening there. I typically take our culinary team once every other year to Mexico where we pick a region to tour and explore the food - everything from street food to fine dining. We want to understand what sorts of new flavors and dishes are coming out of Mexico and bring them back to Cabana Grill for our guests to enjoy.
3. What’s an example of how you translate your experiences in Mexico to Cabana Grill?
One example is our Street Tacos. The street taco is an idea that came from Mexican street vendors, especially in the bigger cities like Mexico City. People in the larger cities are often on the go with very little time to stop and eat. To meet the demands of this group street vendors prepare different meats like steak, pork and chicken on small grills and apportion them into small corn tortillas, 3 to a plate. It’s portable-friendly food. We loved that idea and realized we could do so many things with that format. With our Street Tacos you get 3 mini tacos served on soft corn tortillas. They’re filled with diced steak, cilantro and onions. It’s a really nice light meal at only 350 calories. Our Tostadas are based on the same idea but come on a flat, round, crispy taco shell. You get 3 mini tostadas to a plate with your choice of steak or chicken fajita, dressed with refried beans and topped with lettuce, tomatoes, sour cream and a nice, white Mexican Asadero cheese. The Asadero cheese is somewhat unique, but it’s quite common in Mexico and is something we’ve brought to our menu. Mexican street food certainly isn’t new to Mexico but it’s starting to grab hold in the U.S. and we're excited to bring the experience to our guests.
4. What would you consider some of the highlights of your menu?
I’d start with the 3 main proteins we offer for the center of the plate - our Chicken Fajita, Steak Fajita and Shrimp Tampico. These 3 quality proteins are served in various formats such as in our tacos, quesadillas, and burritos, over our nachos, or in a bowl. If you order a Chicken Fajita Quesadilla for example, we grill our chicken fajita on our flame grill, cut it into strips, top it with cheese and serve it in a quesadilla with lettuce and a side of sour cream. If you ordered the Chicken Fajita Taco Plate, we’d serve you two tacos filled with our grilled chicken fajita, lettuce and tomato, then top it with your choice of signature salsa plus two sides. Our sides include Cilantro Lime Rice, Mexican Rice, Mexican Potatoes, Black Beans and Charro Beans. Beans can be ordered as regular or refried. Our Taco Plates are a great deal considering you get two loaded tacos and your choice of two sides, all starting at only $5.99 (for our chicken or vegetarian fajita). People who use our drive-through are more likely to order the burritos, because they’re large, filling and easier to handle on the road. It’s really up to you how you want to experience the flavors of Mexico at Cabana Grill.
5. What’s Shrimp Tampico?
We marinate shrimp in ancho chilies and spices to impart a bold flavor. It’s not spicy, but it’s definitely bold. Then we grill the shrimp while stirring in pico de gallo to add even more flavor. To give you a further idea of what we mean by authentic Mexican fare, our shrimp offering was inspired from a past trip to Tampico, Mexico, an oceanside town known for its fresh seafood offerings. The flavor combinations we found down there are what led to the recipe for Shrimp Tampico and why we decided to name it for the beautiful seaside town.
6. Any recommendations for someone new to Cabana Grill?
If it’s your first time then I’d recommend the Steak Fajita Taco Plate. We flame grill our steak and chop it into strips. That’s our signature item. By getting that as a taco you can also experience our fresh made tortillas - corn or flour. We add lettuce and tomatoes and you can choose one of our house made salsas to personalize your taco. If you order as a Taco Plate you get two tacos partnered up with your choice of 2 sides. It’s a nice way to experience a good sampling of the broad flavors on our menu, all in one dish.
7. Can you recommend a side?
The Mexican Potatoes are my favorite. So unique and different. We take cubed potatoes, grill them on the flat grill and mix in pico de gallo to give them a nice flavor punch. Then we top it with white Mexican Asadero cheese to give it that warm gooey texture. It’s unbelievable as a side item - there’s nothing else out there like it.
8. Do you offer vegetarian or gluten free options?
Yes to both. For gluten free eating we make sure we cook our gluten containing items in separate containers from our gluten free items. We also spend time training our staff on proper food preparation and the isolation of ingredients to ensure a gluten free experience. On the ingredient side we have pure corn tortillas as an alternative to our flour and blended corn tortillas. Our meats, shrimp, rices, black beans, chips, queso, quacamole and most of our salsas are all gluten free. Guests can request a complete gluten free list of options from our cashiers.
We also have a wall panel when you walk in that talks about our lighter options. Our Cabana Bowls are very popular with those who want to eat healthier. You can get them with rice, beans, lettuce, tomatoes, and fajita meat if you’d like - all topped with your choice of pico de gallo, salsa and guacamole. It can make a pretty filling and satisfying meal that’s healthy and also gluten free. We have several bowl options under 400 calories.
For our vegetarian fans, we have a green symbol next to certain items on our menu indicating they are vegetarian.
9. You have a pretty great happy hour. Can you tell us about it?
We think it’s one of the best deals out there. We call it our $5 Fiesta. Every day, 7 days a week, from 4pm to 7pm you can come in and get a margarita or domestic beer for only $1.50. You can pair one of those drinks, or a fountain drink, with a small serving of nachos for only $5 in total - it’s a pretty good deal.
10. Do you serve breakfast?
No, but it’s something we may consider down the road. We’re currently focused on lunch and dinner, from 11am to 11pm.
11. Who’s the audience for Cabana Grill?
We have a very diverse audience - just about every walk of life you can think of. If there’s an identifiable audience, it’s the people who are attracted to the fast casual dining experience - those who want good quality food, served quickly and at an affordable price.
12. How many Cabana Grills are there?
The restaurant in Jacksonville is our second. We opened our first in a suburb of Atlanta in April of 2014.
13. Why Jacksonville?
Our core concept restaurant is called Taco Cabana and we have over 170 of those locations, mostly in Texas. Texas is the birthplace of Tex-Mex food in the United States and we’ve been running our restaurants there for 36 years. A few years ago we started to think about how Taco Cabana could play more nationally, outside of Texas. We went out and did research in 24 major cities across the U.S., including Jacksonville. We found the biggest demand for authentic, fast casual Mexican cuisine was in the Southeastern United States. Based on the feedback from the 24 markets we tested, we zeroed in on Atlanta and Jacksonville. Two years ago we came to Jacksonville and set up in a rented dining and kitchen environment. We brought in a couple of hundred people over the course of two days to expose them to the Cabana Grill menu. We got a lot of positive feedback and it became clear to us this was a concept the people of Jacksonville would be interested in. The response was just tremendous. From that experience we became optimistic about Jacksonville being one of our first markets.
14. Why Mandarin?
Because Mandarin is a great, centrally located part of Jacksonville that gives us exposure to a lot of people. The particular neighborhood we’re in is a great combination of residential and business so we get all walks of life with a chance to expose our brand to them to see how it does in a diverse and metropolitan environment.
15. Do you have plans for other sites in Jacksonville?
We’re in a wait-and-see mode right now as we’ve just opened our first location here. However, we do have our eyes on other potential locations and if things work out as we hope they will, then we definitely want to expand our presence here.
16. What are some of the differences between what you offer your Texas customers via Taco Cabana and what you’ll offer through Cabana Grill?
One of the biggest differences is around breakfast. In Mexico, and in Texas, the breakfast taco is a core menu item. In our research across the 24 U.S. markets not one of them was really familiar with a breakfast taco or found the idea of a Mexican breakfast to be appealing. There were some people who responded to the idea of a Mexican breakfast positively, but they were definitely in the minority. That compares to Texas where many people eat breakfast tacos 2 or 3 times a week, and there’s many different places serving them. We knew we’d have to build a concept that wasn’t reliant on a breakfast offering to be successful. Hopefully, down the road though, we can begin to introduce our breakfast. You just haven't lived until you've had a good breakfast taco to start the day!
Another difference we’ve seen is the spice level. In Texas we eat jalapeños on everything, even at breakfast. I make my own scrambled eggs with jalapeños and hot sauce. That’s just how people eat in Texas, but it’s not the norm in the rest of the country. We acknowledge that. So we had to figure out how to dial back the heat without losing the bold, interesting flavors. For example, even with our mild salsa we had to cut the number of jalapeños in half because some people were finding even the mild version of our salsa too hot.
17. Any surprises as you opened outside of Texas?
Sometimes I’m surprised by the reaction we get from things that we take for granted in Texas but may not be as common here. For example, we make all our tortillas fresh. When you come to Cabana Grill and you approach the register to place your order, you’ll see someone off to the side hand pressing fresh dough balls into flat tortillas and grilling them right in front of you. If you order a taco, your tortilla is made literally just minutes before it is served to you. The freshness and hand made aspect to what we do has always been one of our calling cards. The aficionados of real Mexican food know it isn’t authentic unless your tortilla is made fresh - and if you don’t see it being made you shouldn’t be going there. It’s been great to see people appreciate that aspect of the craftsmanship we bring to our restaurant.
18. What’s the relationship between Cabana Grill and Pollo Tropical?
We’re sister restaurants under the same parent company. We’re both fast casual formats. Pollo Tropical focuses on Caribbean-inspired food while we’re serving authentic Mexican food. We work together a lot - the food may be different but we’re in the same business. We help each other optimize things like the service level and how we best cater to our respective customers. We’re moving into the Southeast, which has been Pollo Tropical’s neighborhood for years. At the same time Pollo Tropical is moving into Texas, where we know fast casual customers really well. We routinely share business insights to help us each be more successful.
19. Can you tell us about your role at Cabana Grill?
I’m the Chief Operating Officer at Taco Cabana and Cabana Grill. I’ve been at Taco Cabana for 5 years now but I’ve been in the restaurant industry for 20 years. I came up through the marketing side of the business. One of my missions here has been to figure out the expansion concept to take Taco Cabana outside of Texas. Cabana Grill is the answer to that. It’s been about 3 years of pre-work to get our first location open. The biggest challenge has been to zero in on the optimal version of Cabana Grill. We’ve learned a lot from our first location and we expect to learn a lot here in Jacksonville. It’s important to really listen to what our customers are telling us. I have a team on the ground in Jacksonville now that’s intercepting people in the restaurant to learn about their experience and to get instant feedback. We’re constantly learning and refining how we’re putting ourselves out there.
20. Anything else?
People generally think of Mexican food as a sit-down dining experience. They rarely think about picking up Mexican food to take out. But I think we’ve cracked that code. We offer what's called Fiesta Meals-To-Go. It’s a fajita meal for 4 people. You get everything conveniently packaged for pickup through the drive through for those times you just don’t feel like cooking. We’ve tried to make our Fiesta Meals an easy, convenient option for take home eating and we’re curious to see how people respond to that.