Crystal Park Cantina is exactly what a neighborhood restaurant should be: easy to get to, fun and lively with flavorful and freshly prepared dishes. This makes the rare missteps easy to forgive.
Full disclosure: I'm a Cantina fan. I've appreciated being greeted by the owners, who always seem genuinely glad to welcome me (not by name but as a familiar face) and all who walk through the door. I enjoy the well-made margaritas and the creative menu. It's nice, too, that its Manitou Springs location is, actually, part of a neighborhood.
I don't want to know what a Mexican meal is like without chips and salsa. The Cantina's chips are light and crispy; the salsa is smoky, savory and the perfect accompaniment to any pre-dinner beverage.
Many entrees are available in two sizes. The menu features more than the usual south-of-the-border greatest hits. Sure it has burritos, enchiladas and tacos, but even these comprise variations from the standards.
The chili relleno ($13/$15) is a worthy spin on the classic roasted green chile stuffed with cheese. Here, the pepper is encased in a crispy, flaky shell rather than a spongy egg coating. Three house-made sauces are offered for this and most of the entrees: traditional green chili, red mole or tomatillo Alfredo. Compared with the first two, the latter is my least favorite, with not enough flavor for my taste. It's possible to have all three or any combination.
I'd never ordered a hamburger at a Mexican restaurant, but Cantina's version ($14) has been recommended by friends. This thick, hand-formed ground beef patty full of caramelized onions and a jalapeño-cheese blend provides plenty of heat, the piquant kind you want to hit your taste buds. This plus-size burger, topped with chipotle aioli and shredded red cabbage, is served on a corn-meal bun. It's not designed as the fallback gringo entrée for someone who doesn't appreciate distinct flavors.
The elements in an avocado pork burrito ($14) are no surprise. Rather than slices of avocado, the menu indicated guacamole, which was the case. Yet the amount was barely detectable. At this price, for a burrito, the guac should be plentiful.
The issue at many Mexican restaurants is spice level, whether too much or too little. The problem here was temperature.
Alerts of hot plates when food arrives are typical. Fair warning was given at the Cantina, but it was a ruse. Neither the plate nor the food was too hot. We sent one entree back to the kitchen, where it was refired rather than simply reheated in a microwave. We were told the kitchen doesn't have one. Good to know. Still, three of us had nearly finished our meals before the errant dish finally arrived appropriately hot.
The lukewarm dish exiled to the kitchen was spinach and Portobello enchilada ($11/$13). The namesake elements and cheese are wrapped in corn tortillas and covered with a choice of red mole or green chili. The enchiladas are rich and creamy but not palatable when barely warm. All of the above entrees are served with saffron rice and pinto beans.
It's easy to get caught up in the jovial ambiance. It can be a little loud, but not so much that conversation is strained. The meal ended on a good note thanks to the freshly made (read hot) sopapillas ($6) sprinkled with cinnamon sugar that we drizzled with honey. The plate was piled high with smaller versions of the fried-puffy treats. The entrees were filling, but this dessert hit the spot.