Cantina Laredo takes Mexican dining upscale with fresh ingredients, bold flavors and sizzling presentations

It's all about the presentation at Cantina Laredo. At most Mexican places, you can't hope for more than a vaguely identifiable pile of rice, meat and cheese, smothered in enchilada sauce. Here, the guacamole is lovingly prepared-tableside! Glistening ceviche is nestled inside a curling leaf of lettuce. And desserts are served on a sizzling platter, fajita-style.

That wow factor partly accounts for prices that are a little on the high end. But your payoff comes in more than just looks--you get fresh, high-end ingredients and outstanding made-from-scratch sauces.

The Cantina boasts a soothing environment, with warm desert tones, blond wood walls and low lights. Plenty of high-backed booths make for intimate dining, even when the place is packed.
(Note: I visited at 7:30 p.m. on a Saturday and 7:30 p.m. on a Sunday, and the difference was remarkable. On Saturday, the crowd spilled out of the spacious lobby, and the wait for our party of four was an hour and a half--a bearable wait, because you can duck out and hit a few stores at Polaris Fashion Place. On Sunday, we waltzed in and were seated immediately at our choice of tables in the mostly empty dining room.)

A backlit bar features as fine a collection of tequilas as you're likely to find in this city. You can sample the selection with $20 tequila flights (a choice of three anejo, reposado or plata tequilas). Or, they can be mixed with fresh-squeezed fruit juices to create some very tasty margaritas. I liked the signature Casa Rita ($8), with Sauza Blanco, Cointreau and lemon and lime juices, but even better is the Cabo Margarita ($12.50), made with super-smooth Cabo Wabo Reposado and Grand Marnier.

Just talking about Mexican food makes me hungry for chips and salsa. So I was happy to be served a nice big bowl of warm tortilla chips with two dipping sauces, a traditional mild salsa and a hot version that was both spicy and warm. Warm salsa was a new and enjoyable experience, with the heat intensifying the flavors.

Every meal here should start with the Top-Shelf Guacamole ($9.50). Our waiter brought out all the ingredients--whole avocados, chopped tomatoes, red onions, seeded (aka not-too-spicy) jalapenos, lime slices and a spice/salt mixture--in individual bowls on a serving tray. He mashed the avocados in a molcajete, or the Mexican version of a mortar and pestle, then mixed in all the fixings. The result was the freshest and creamiest guac I'd had in quite a while. It kept getting better as the flavors melded together, so I'd suggest lingering over this dish if you have the time.

As far as main courses go, the Cantina has standard fare like soft tacos and enchiladas (including a delicious-sounding avocado-and-artichoke variety topped with tomatillo sauce), but also a hefty number of more authentic dishes, like carne asada, carnitas and ceviche.

In fact, the Ceviche ($9) is a perfect example of how this place does "gourmet Mexican food." Along with the chunks of citrus-marinated shrimp, scallops and white fish was an unexpected surprise--a colorful melange of roasted red peppers, green olives and capers. Those salty flavors actually married quite well with the heavy hit of lime juice. Long strips of reddish-orange tortillas fried to a crisp are provided for scooping up the ceviche.

The Carnitas ($20) were similarly stunning. Rather than the typical chunks of pork, you get three tender braised shanks served on the bone, resting on top of rice and sauted seasonal vegetables. Spooned on top is a smoky and complex chipotle-wine sauce, an unusual flavor pairing that worked better than I expected.

The Cantina folks are pretty proud of those sauces, all made in-house and featuring some innovative flavor combos. My favorite was an intensely green cilantro one spooned on the shrimp skewers from an otherwise unremarkable appetizer platter.

All through our dinner, my pal and I had been catching intoxicating whiffs of caramelized sugar. We'd been smelling another fantastic sauce, this one a Mexican Brandy Butter served on either a brownie or a slice of apple pie ($6). You should go ahead and just order one of each.

In a final bit of showmanship, our waiter brought out two cast-iron skillets topped with our desserts of choice and a scoop of ice cream (you can choose between vanilla and cinnamon; the cinnamon is better), then poured the Brandy Butter over the hot skillet and let it bubble into caramel-colored deliciousness. I'm pleased to report they both tasted just as good as they smelled.