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New Cantina is exotic and fresh

By Elise Esprit

Isabel Cruz, owner of La Jolla’s Mission Coffee Cup, has a knack for catching the mood of San Diego’s dining public. Teaming up with her husband, William, who is a builder in San Diego, Isabel has created a restaurant on Felspar Street in Pacific Beach that should draw raves.

Isabel’s Cantina contains all of the essential elements of a modern mid-range successful restaurant. The space the restaurant occupies has been architecturally molded into an attractive dining environment with an intricate Balinese bar, a lounging Buddha, a comfortable dining area with high ceilings, an attractive main entrance and more.

It’s an enchanting and functional space that is easy on the eye and comforting to the soul. The massive wooden bar is a particularly good use of space and the view right into the aromatic kitchen is subtle yet intriguing, as it allows diners to glimpse a view of the busy chefs stirring around inside.

The menu features a wide range of different bold Latino and Asian flavors. The dishes consists of Cuban, Mexican, Japanese, Korean and Thai flavors, all prepared with minimal calories and fat. All the menu items are delicious, nutritious, simple-to-prepare and well-balanced. It’s a menu that will keep you eating well without ever sacrificing taste.

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It’s the brilliant combination of healthful eating and small details that take Isabel’s restaurants to a new level. The wait staff all makes you feel at home as you enjoy your meal. I was particularly struck by their unpretentious and attentive approach.

We chose a quiet midweek evening to enjoy our dinner at Isabel’s Cantina. The restaurant has a Zen-like atmosphere created by soft lighting, designer painted walls and half-upholstered, half-wooden furnishings. The place was reasonably full, even early in the evening. The beautifully handcrafted bar was obviously a great place to enjoy a glass of fruity sangria before sitting down to your meal. In the left back corner of the open room was a large seated Buddha holding a pumpkin. At the entrance was a skillfully set up display of Isabel’s new cookbooks, also called “Isabel’s Cantina,” which were available for sale.

The menu was simple and yet intriguing. It was helpful that the wait staff were all familiar with the menu contents and were able to act as menu guides. It was tough to choose as all the menu items sounded wonderful. The result was food that is exotic, fresh, dynamic and healthy. Taking the fusion craze to the next level, Isabel manages to allow for, and encourage, healthful yet delicious substitutions or modifications on all her menus.

For our starters, we sampled the Ahi Wontons, which were wonton crisps topped with seared ahi, avocado, sweet soy and wasabi cream.

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We also had the wonderful plantains, which came with a dollop of sour cream and caviar. For our dinners, we tried the Flat Iron Steak with Mojo, which was a marinated char-grilled steak served with Portobello mushrooms, cilantro, garlic mojo pico and roasted red and sweet potatoes, and the Brazil Bowl, a big bowl of marinated carnitas with coconut rice and black beans served with a very tasty papaya mango mint salsa and crispy plantains.

For dessert we enjoyed a luscious plate of Bananas Cantina, which was flamed bananas with spiced rum served a la mode.

I observed many of the diners enjoying dinner alongside us and could feel the food quickly disappearing off their plates. This is a very cool restaurant and I will most certainly return for a repeat performance.

For more information on the restaurant or to order Isabel’s new cookbook, go to www.isabelscantina.com.


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