Let’s just cut to the chase: Cantina Laredo is one of the best restaurants I’ve eaten at this year.
Since assuming the role of Tribune dining critic in June, I’ve formally reviewed 64 East Valley restaurants and informally visited more than 100 others in the course of writing features and columns.
Cantina Laredo ranks with the best of them.
Yes, it’s a chain. Yes, it’s in Gilbert (although there’s also a north Scottsdale location). Yes, it’s in a shopping center (SanTan Village).
It’s also, from appetizers through dessert, delicious.
The cuisine is gourmet Mexican, but don’t expect to see any sombreros or colorfully painted wood furniture. The decor is modern, with light wood panels on the walls, slate floors and shelves of contemporary glasswork.
A circular bar dominates the main dining room, with mostly booths ringing the outside.
Every table’s setting includes a bowl of avocados, which can be used to make fresh guacamole ($8.99). Our server, Brittany, brings out small dishes of limes, spices, onions, cilantro, tomatoes and chili peppers and, using only a fork, quickly creates a large bowl of chunky guac for us.
Although I’ve never been a big fan of this Mexican dip, I love the flavors and freshness of Cantina Laredo’s version. It’s hard not to eat the entire bowl with chips and save some room for our entrees.
Fortunately, we also have two wonderful salsas — a traditional zesty red and a green that tastes like meatless chili — to scoop with the chips.
We start with the botanas platter ($13.99), a medley of scrumptious appetizers: tacos al pastor, chicken fajita quesadilla, stuffed jalapeños, chili con queso, beef fajita, chicken fajita and shrimp. There’s not an average item in the bunch.
By the time we get to entrees, we’re already getting full. But it doesn’t take much effort to dig into the tacos casabel ($13.99), five small tortillas brimming with chili-coated chicken, or the camarone mesquite ($17.99), eight large shrimp sauteed in garlic butter.
Even the fajitas ($15.49), especially the beef, are packed with flavor. Our entire meal’s only “disappointments,” if you can call them that, are the beans and rice, which are quite basic. Then again, how much can you do with beans and rice?
Completely stuffed, we decide to forgo dessert — that is, until a neighboring table gets the Mexican apple pie ($5.49), served in a hot iron skillet that sizzles when brandy butter is poured over the pie, filling the restaurant with a mouthwatering aroma.
Loosening our belts, we force ourselves to try our own helping, only in the interest of providing the most thorough review possible, of course.
In fact, I promise Tribune readers to continue my research by checking in on Cantina Laredo quite often.
DINING REVIEW | Cantina Laredo
Where: 2150 E. Williams Field Road, Gilbert (northeast corner of Williams Field and Greenfield roads)
Open: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Prices: Appetizers $5.49-$12.49, lunch entrees $7.79-$14.99, dinner entrees $9.49-$23.99, desserts $4.99-$5.99
Information: (480) 782-6777 or www.cantinalaredo.com