Talking upscale, gourmet Mexican cuisine with Patrick Grouss of Cantina Laredo
1. Tell us about Cantina Laredo.
Cantina Laredo is an upscale, gourmet Mexican dining experience. We make authentic, Mexico City inspired recipes, and prepare everything with fresh ingredients. That's what really sets us apart from other Mexican restaurants. We were founded on the idea of detail - paying special attention to all the details. All of our sauces are made in the restaurant as opposed to us purchasing them. We bring in fresh seafood as opposed to purchasing it frozen. The style of service really reflects the level of detail that we put into our cuisine. It's relaxed but at the same time it's sophisticated and lends itself to an upscale experience. The ambiance embodies all that and wraps it up in a nice package. When you walk in the restaurant has an elegant feel but it's still relaxed. It's casual but sophisticated. It's a very nice, comfortable blend of an upscale experience but in a casual setting.
2. What does it mean for the recipes to be Mexico City inspired? How is it different from typical Mexican fare?
Well, we feature fresh seafood which is not typical of most Mexican restaurants. A lot of the recipes that we have on our menu feature items like Chilean sea bass or pan seared flounder or the Mahi-Mahi fish tacos. Our sauces also reflect items that you would find if you went to Mexico City today. We use fresh ingredients like red bell pepper, portobello mushrooms, dried chipotle peppers, ancho peppers, and guajillo peppers. We use a wide variety of ingredients that you would find in central Mexico. This is as opposed to finding Mexican food that is really American influenced. We have some American influenced items on our menu, like our enchiladas, and such. Those are more representative of the Tex-Mex style. They're more American influenced dishes that have been adopted from Mexican cuisine whereas our main focus are really dishes that are authentic to what you would find in Mexico City.
3. Who's the audience for Cantina Laredo?
It's a family restaurant but I have to acknowledge that businesses appreciate our restaurant for things like our private dining room, which is often utilized for business functions. It comes with audio and visual equipment that makes it perfect for business meetings. We lend ourselves to a sophisticated, efficient style of business dining but we really are a family restaurant. And we're an everyday restaurant - dining with us doesn't have to be reserved for a special occasion.
4. Can you tell us about the private dining room?
The private dining room is fully private - meaning it comes with 4 walls and a door. You can have the space completely set apart for your group. It seats up to 30 guests but it also supports 8-10 very comfortably. We have a very nice flat screen television that can connect to laptops for video presentations. There's built in surround sound as well. We have select menus that we offer for our private dining guests that makes it easy and manageable to focus on your get-together while letting us take care of the food and drinks. We really assist in setting up the whole process of the party.
5. Can you give a recommendation or two to help people understand what Cantina Laredo is all about and what upscale gourmet means?
One of my recommendations to start off with is our Enchiladas Vera Cruz. This is one of my favorites. It's a traditional style enchilada that starts with a corn tortilla and then we fill it with fresh spinach, Monterey Jack cheese, fresh sour cream, shredded white meat chicken that's been boiled with bell peppers and jalapeños. We roll that enchilada up and top it with a verde sauce, which is a green sauce made from roasted tomatillos. Then we top it all with fresh, marinated vegetables - red cabbage, jicama, grilled red onions, cilantro, roasted red bell pepper - all mixed together and then marinated in a vinaigrette to add a bit of a tang. We then top it with some corn tortilla strips and some fresh cheese. When you slice into this enchilada you get the creaminess from the cheese, but you're getting the kick from the chicken that has the jalapeño flavor in it, and then the tanginess from the tomatillo sauce. It's a wild variety of flavors. And the visual appeal is pretty incredible as well.
6. What can you recommend to someone who wants to stretch themselves a little with your menu?
I would recommend our chicken mole enchiladas. They're similar, with a corn tortilla, fresh chicken and Monterey Jack cheese, rolled up together. But we top it with a Mole Negro sauce, which is a traditional Mexican sauce. You'll find a lot of varieties of this but I've been told that ours is as close to authentic Mexican mole sauce as you can possibly get. It's made from Mexican chocolate, about 5 varieties of peppers, roasted peanuts and almonds, and a variety of ingredients all melted down together. The taste is a rich, chocolatey, spicy flavor in the mole sauce. It's very unique but it's very authentic and it's very delicious.
7. Do you have things on the menu that you'd consider hidden gems because people may not be familiar with them and don't realize how good they really are?
Yes, our ceviche. It's on our appetizer menu, but you can enjoy ceviche as a meal - it's really delicious. One thing I like about it is that it's a very light dish. We take fresh seafood - bay scallops, fresh shrimp, fresh fish - and we dice them all up. Ceviche, instead of being cooked with heat, is actually soaked in lime juice for a period of about 24 hours. The acidity from the juice soaks in and cooks the seafood. After it's marinated, we strain it out and douse it in cholula sauce, which is a really nice, authentic Mexican hot sauce. We then serve it with a mixture of vegetables - capers, green olives, red onion, and cilantro. We mix everything together and serve it with tostada chips, which are the corn chips you get at your table. You put the ceviche on the corn chips and it's incredibly good - you have a tang from the lime juice and a kick from the chalula sauce yet it almost has a Mediterranean feel from the capers and the olives. I've had ceviche in a lot of places, including Mexico, and I can not find a ceviche that's as good as ours - I really believe it's the best ceviche I've ever tasted. A lot of folks shy away from it because they think cold seafood isn't for them. I'm that sort of guy too - I don't like sushi, but the moment I tasted our ceviche I was hooked - it's really that good.
8. What's the most popular dish in the restaurant?
The thing that really put us on the map is a dish called Camaron Poblano Asada. It's got a lot of flavors in it. We start with a poblano pepper. We fire roast it by setting it on the open flame. After letting it roast for a while we take the skin off the poblano pepper, open the pepper up to take out the seeds, then we fill it with Monterey Jack cheese, fresh spinach, sliced onions, and sautéed shrimp before we close it back up. Then we take our 10 oz grilled Asada steak, which has been marinated, and we wrap it on the outside of the poblano pepper. When you slice into it you're getting the grilled flavor of the steak, the earth tones from the poblano pepper and the creaminess from the Monterey Jack cheese, along with the flavors from the shrimp. In my opinion it's the most well rounded dish we have. Folks will come back for that - once they have it they have a hard time getting away from it. It's delicious.
9. What's your favorite dish?
We do a variation on the Carne Asada called the Asada Y Camarones. It uses the same grilled Asada steak but lays it out flat on a bed of chimichurri sauce. Chimichurri sauce is another of our unique house-made sauces that we make from cilantro, lime, garlic flavors and a touch of cayenne. We put that sauce on and add 2 bacon wrapped shrimp on top the asada steak. These shrimp are incredible - they could be a meal on their own. We take 2 jumbo shrimp, butterfly them and fill them with Oaxaca cheese - which is an authentic Mexican white cheese that melts nicely - and fresh jalapeño. Then we take seasoned bacon and wrap the shrimp back together with the cheese and jalapeño inside. Then we grill it. When the 2 bacon wrapped shrimp are on top of the steak it's really delicious and decadent. That's my personal favorite.
10. Can you tell us about one of your vegetarian dishes?
The Enchiladas De Avocado. When I first saw this I thought it was really unique. It's a vegetarian dish. I'm a meat person - when I go out to eat I'm always drawn to the chicken or beef dish first. But I love this dish, which is saying a lot for someone who likes meat so much. We start with a corn tortilla and layer on Monterey Jack cheese, which we allow to melt on the tortilla. We add roasted red bell pepper, artichoke hearts and fresh avocado and then wrap it up. We top it with the same verde sauce we use for the Enchiladas Vera Cruz that has the tang and little bit of spice to it. We layer the verde sauce on top and then add a little sour cream on top of that. When you get a bite of this it really has a blend of tanginess from the sauce, saltiness from the artichoke hearts, and earth tones from the roasted red bell pepper. It's a really great, balanced dish. After you've had it you feel very light - it doesn't taste heavy. It's healthy and light. It's very unique. For me, I normally associate vegetarian dishes with compromising and giving up flavor for lack of meat but this will blow you away.
11. Can you tell us a little about your guacamole? Why did you decide to prepare it table side?
We've been doing table side for many, many years although we didn't start preparing it that way. What we realized is that with avocados freshness is everything. Once you take an avocado out of its skin you have a very, very short window of time to enjoy it before it begins to oxidize and its flavor and texture begin to fade. So freshness and timing are everything. When you walk into the restaurant you'll notice that every single table has a fresh avocado and fresh lime on it. We don't use those - we're waiting for each avocado to ripen to its perfect maturity. When an avocado is perfect we'll take it and use it to make the guacamole right at the table. Along with the avocados a guest gets to choose which fresh ingredients they want in their guacamole. The can choose things like fresh diced jalapeños, fresh diced red onion, chopped cilantro, and fresh seasoning. When you taste all the fresh ingredients together it's guacamole at its very best. That's why we decided to do it that way - because the flavor is incredibly better than if you were to make it in the morning and then serve it all afternoon long.
12. What's a Mexican Apple Pie?
It's one of our signature desserts. It's been with us since we started. It's a traditional apple pie but we've added a cinnamon crust that goes over the top. What really makes the pie come alive though is our Brandy Butter. We prepare this table-side with a hot skillet, the apple pie on a separate plate, and a small cup of Brandy Butter. We put the apple pie on the warm skillet to start warming the pie. Then we'll put the cinnamon ice cream on top of the pie and put the Brandy Butter all over the hot skillet to start warming the butter. The aroma will spread all throughout the restaurant and everyone wants to know what you're having because it smells so great. When you taste that warm apple pie with cinnamon ice cream and warm Brandy Butter you'll think it's one of the best things you've ever tasted. I don't particularly like apple pie myself but when I get one taste of our Mexican Apple Pie I can't stop. My wife loves it, so normally she'll order it and I'll intend to have one bite but never seem to stop at just one.
13. Is there something called Mexican Apple Pie or is that your creation?
It's really our creation, putting together traditional apple pie and our signature Brandy Butter, and of course the cinnamon ice cream. We gave it the name ourselves.
14. What's a Mexican Brownie?
It's done the same way as the Mexican Apple Pie but with a triple fudge brownie. We use fresh Hershey chocolate chips in our brownie along with pecan pieces. You get a large, very rich, dense brownie. It sits on our hot skillet with the Brandy Butter being warmed around it. We top that with vanilla ice cream. It's delicious too. It's one I'd go for because I love chocolate. I've had the Mexican Brownie for breakfast, lunch and dinner and it's always good.
15. You have a lot of gluten free options; can you tell us about a few of them?
Our most popular is the Tacos de Pescado, which translates to fish tacos. We start with corn tortillas and layer on Monterey Jack cheese. We then add fresh, seasoned Mahi Mahi and top it with chipotle aioli sauce, which is a traditional aioli sauce but with chipotle peppers that we blend in to give it a nice spice. Then we take marinated vegetables such a jicama, red cabbage, and red bell peppers, and we add them on top the fish tacos. We then finish it off with queso fresco, or fresh cheese, which is a really light, white cheese. Fish tacos are really popular and that's a really delicious and gluten free recipe.
16. Are you seeing a lot of demand for gluten free?
Yes, and we notate all our gluten free and vegetarian options on our menu. It's very important to me, personally, to take our guest's food sensitivities seriously. We have a very specific, multi-layered plan in our service that really takes care of our guest's food sensitivities. Number one, our managers are always involved with gluten free situations. We don't make our guests feel uncomfortable about it but we always like to remind them that our chef takes special care of that particular order. He prepares it himself and makes sure that particular order is handled very carefully. Our service staff is very knowledgeable about our gluten free options but it's important to me that the manager takes personal care of those orders and follows them from the order stage all the way to the time the food gets back to the table. A lot of our guests appreciate that. We have regular clientele that come to our restaurant specifically because they know they can eat here and when we say it's gluten free they're not going to get sick down the road. Gluten free is very difficult in a scratch kitchen because it's very complicated to ensure that every single ingredient has not come in contact with any of the products that are not gluten free, but we take special precautions.
17. Can you tell us a little about some of your signature cocktails?
Our signature cocktail is the Casa Rita, which is our house made Margarita. We also offer a variety of specialty margaritas as well, and every Margarita we make in our restaurant is made with fresh squeezed lemons and limes.
We also have about 60 different tequilas in the restaurant and we can make a Margarita out of any one of these tequilas.
18. Are you seeing any trends in cocktails?
Yes. One of the things we are offering now is a Patron Watermelon Rita. We take a Patron Silver Tequila, our fresh squeezed lemon and lime juice mix, then we add fresh watermelon juice - which we get from dicing and blending a watermelon - and shake the watermelon juice with the Margarita mix. As the weather is warming up, you can sit on the patio and sip on a watermelon Margarita made with Patron Silver Tequila - it's very light and a real treat - it's a fresh take on a Margarita.
Another new cocktail we have is called a Tamarind Margarita, which adds a salty and a spicy flavor to the Margarita.
Both the Patron Watermelon Rita and the Tamarind Margarita are our featured Margaritas now.
19. Can you tell us about your Happy Hour?
Well, one thing that's really important to folks here in Jacksonville is our Happy Hour. Folks go crazy for a great Happy Hour, they really do. We just recently redesigned our Happy Hour. We used to be Monday to Friday from 4pm - 7pm and we've just expanded that to add 9pm to close. We decided to throw in Saturday as well, from 11am - 5pm. We have something for everyone during our Happy Hours. We have our Casa Ritas for $5. We do our house wines and our house liquors for $4. Our import beers are $3 and our domestic beers are $2.
On top of Happy Hour we've added a drink special to almost every day of the week. These specials run the full day. For example, on Mondays we have Margarita Mondays. We serve top shelf Margaritas, using a different tequila every week, and we'll sell them for $5 all day long. On Tuesdays we do $2 Tecate's all day long. On Wednesday we do half off glasses and bottles of wine. Thursday is our famous Ladies Night. We offer half off our Casa Rita's for ladies from 4 PM to close. On Sunday we offer $2 Mimosas and Bloody Mary's all day.
20. Where does the name Cantina Laredo come from?
Originally Cantina Laredo was owned by a family in Dallas. They took a trip to Laredo, Mexico and found a restaurant that offered an experience they wanted to recreate in Texas. In 1984 they opened the doors to the first Cantina Laredo.
21. How long has Cantina Laredo been in Jacksonville?
This is our 6th year in Jacksonville.
22. What attracted you to the St. Johns Town Center area?
We knew several years ago that the St. Johns Town Center was going to be the epicenter for shopping, not only for people in Jacksonville, but for surrounding communities as well. We have clientele that reach as far north as Georgia and as far south as the mid areas of Florida. We even have clients who visit regularly from Alabama. They do that because the St. Johns Town Center offers a unique blend of retail and dining experiences you can't find anywhere else - not only in Jacksonville but in northeast Florida. There's nothing quite like it and we knew that would provide a unique ability to draw people. That's what attracted us.
23. Can you tell us about your background? How long have you been at Cantina Laredo?
I was raised around restaurants. I was 6 years old when I ran my first set of chips and salsa to a guest in the restaurant my grandmother owned. It was a Mexican restaurant in central Texas called Tres Rositas, meaning the Three Little Roses. She owned that restaurant for several years. It was near the high school stadium so on Friday nights before the football games she'd be very, very busy. My brothers, myself and my Mom would get in our van and drive to the restaurant on Friday afternoons after school and we'd go and just help at the restaurant. Mom would work the cash register, Grandma and Grandpa were working in the kitchen. I was too young to write any of the orders so my brothers took care of that. I'd help clean tables or help get chips and salsa out to the customers when they came. It was such a fun environment to be in.
This is my 6th year with Cantina Laredo. I spent several years at our original location in Addison, TX (a town outside of Dallas) as the General Manager getting to learn about the culture of the restaurant with people who'd been there for 20-plus years. I feel very fortunate that I got to spend several years with them in that restaurant.
24. Do you notice any big difference between your customers in Dalllas and here in Jacksonville?
The biggest thing is really coming from a place that has so much Mexican food that it seems ordinary and second nature and coming to a place where it's not very commonplace. You don't see Mexican places everywhere in Jacksonville whereas in Texas you've got Mexican food on every street corner - in many different styles and ways of doing things. It's been the most interesting adjustment. But it's been a great adjustment because I don't have nearly the competition, so it's a welcome change. And being around Mexican food my whole life it's fun to come to Jacksonville where it's not so commonplace. It's fun to have that passion for the food and the environment and being able to share this cuisine with folks who maybe aren't as used to it.
25. Growing up in such a Mexican-food rich environment, what attracted you to Cantina Laredo?
When I first walked in to a Cantina Laredo I was amazed that you could do Mexican food like this, meaning how beautiful the restaurant is, how much detail is spent on everything - on the cuisine, on how we present the dishes, on every detail of service. Everything has been given thought as to what the guest is going to experience - the ambiance, the style of furniture, the comfortableness of the booth. To plug in that level of detail, that comes from passion - from a desire to do things really well. To plug that into a cuisine I'd grown up with, I just knew it was something I wanted to be a part of. What Cantina Laredo was doing with this particular cuisine was new and I wanted to be a part of it.
26. What have been some of the challenges getting Cantina Laredo going in Jacksonville?
I would say that a big challenge we have is really getting the word out about who we are and what we do. I think it's very unique to a lot of people here in the area. I try to spend a lot of time getting into the community whenever I can, but it's difficult to do that in such a high volume restaurant because I spend so much time in my dining room talking to my guests. I'm so appreciative to have them here that I have to really work to find the time to meet new people to tell them about our restaurant. It's new to a lot of folks, and it's important to me to share our brand and what we do with Mexican food with people who've never seen it before. There are also still many in the Jacksonville community who may have heard of us but not tried us yet, or who may not have heard of us at all. It's always funny to me when you tell people where we are in the St. Johns Town Center and they say "yeah, I know exactly where that is but I don't know where your restaurant is." That's a challenge to me to really get out and make sure everyone knows about our restaurant.
27. When you're not eating at Cantina Laredo, where do you like to eat in Jacksonville?
I'm a big fan of Maggiano's. I love Italian cuisine. Before I came to Cantina Laredo I was in Italian food. In fact, that's where I learned to be a restaurant manager. I've been in love with their style of food for a long time. I'd say that if you were to rack up the number of times that I've been to a restaurant Maggiano's would probably be number 1 on the list.
28. What's next for Cantina Laredo?
We're growing the Cantina Laredo brand. I'm very greedy about sharing my guests with anybody so I don't want to share with anyone in the surrounding states. But we're opening new locations - our most recent Cantina Laredo is in Las Vegas and shortly before that in Syracuse, NY. We have more slated around the United States. We're going into communities that have never before seen anything like us.