For a two-month-old restaurant, the Crystal Park Cantina bears a rich legacy. The Manitou Springs space operated as the Mission Bell Inn for almost a half-century until its sale earlier this year, and the new ownership team has deep community roots.
David and Sue Pisaneschi were founding partners of Savelli's Pizza. Melissa Svenby used to manage Marigold Cafe & Bakery, and her husband Doyle has contributed sculptures to Colorado Springs' annual Art on the Streets. Most notably, ex-Denver Bronco turned Manitou High School football coach Justin Armour contributes star power from the legacy of his sports career (with an assist from his wife Cara, a former model, who stuns guests at the hostess stand).
Meanwhile, Armour's mother Anne, the Cantina's lead chef, operated Sweet Annie's in Manitou Springs in the '80s, as well as 3 Doors Down in downtown Colorado Springs in the late '90s. And Jeff Harsh, who was general manager of the Craftwood Inn for more than a dozen years, has joined the front-house crew.
Attention to detail
With each of them pitching in, the Cantina isn't another ho-hum Tex-Mex spot in a glutted market. It's a reasonably priced gourmet eatery with a slight health bent, and it puts most other Tex-Mexers to shame.
The experience begins with killer margaritas ($7 to $9), all made to order with fresh juices and most employing an all-natural mix. Rather than too-sweet, too-strong hangover vehicles, you get well-balanced, refreshing goblets of salt-rimmed goodness like the Mango Missi and a kick-ass, off-menu, exotically purple Sangria Margarita (made with Spanish red wine and tequila).
For cervezas, beyond a small bottle selection, all three house taps ($4) are devoted to Denver's Del Norte Brewing, a standalone, small-batch brewer of Mexican-style beers and gold winner at last year's Great American Beer Festival.
Tucked away from Manitou Avenue, the chic Southwestern space, renovated over three months, is a destination for locals. Aesthetically, the cool atmosphere makes you want to nurse a cold drink, as if on a Mexican vacation; if only you could smell the ocean from the patio.
Instead, you'll get whiffs of peppers and pork from passing plates of entrées puddled in green chili; Anne's is excellent, with soft strings of pulled pork (slow-baked at 200 degrees overnight) and a pleasant, medium-hot heat. Its alternative on many plates is an interesting, rich tomatillo alfredo sauce, prepped from scratch daily like all house sauces, including the slightly overly tomato-y salsa and a vibrant chipotle-olive-mayo tuna dip served free with thin, delicate tortilla chips.
We sampled both with the chili rellenos and enchiladas (both $12), each served with a great guacamole dab; fresh pico de gallo; a lovely, turmeric-laced saffron basmati rice that uses a Parmesan cheese binder; and refried beans fortified with clarified butter and epazote (the mildly bitter, gas-reducing Central American herb). Here, the sides aren't just filler.
The queso fresco enchiladas also bear potatoes, spinach and not quite enough caramelized onions, while the distinctive wonton wrapping on the rellenos' Anaheims render them satisfyingly lighter than most. Unfortunately, mine had some cold spots inside.
A chopped salad ($10) with properly fried tortilla strips over romaine also makes for a light choice, bearing olives, seasonal veggies and pumpkin seeds. We added red pepper chicken hunks ($3) and tried the cilantro vinagrette and chipotle ranch dressings, both excellent.
Justin says his favorite item is the Cantina Burger ($10), and the hormone-free, Colorado beef patty comes on an awesome, custom-made Great Harvest corn bun. It's topped with diced jalapeños, queso fresco, caramelized onions and a cabbage slaw, though again, not quite enough of each. Side sweet potato fries are great with chipotle ranch mayo, which is also delicious on the burger.
Our chorizo cream cheese jalapeño popper starter ($8), partially shrouded in crispy shredded phyllo, was decadent. Unfortunately, it arrived with our entrées. The still-green servers need to peg their timing, and also their product knowledge — all our sourcing questions required trips to the kitchen for info.
Two things we all learned at dessert (each $6): the Bollito's vanilla ice cream topped in toasted coconut flakes with a caramel drizzle comes from Colorado City Creamery, and the sweetener in the special, raw-food avocado lemon pudding is agave nectar. The first could use more caramel; the latter, more freshness, since its highly oxidized top half missed the bottom's mild sweetness and citrus twang. A tres leches cupcake was fine as a lemony white confection, but brought none of the creamy sponginess true to the cake form.
So, like the front of the house, the kitchen could make some tweaks. (I'd also suggest playing up the locally and sustainably sourced items on a menu reprint, for deserved applause at the prices.) But with small improvements, this place should contend for many Indy Best Of categories this year, including Best New Restaurant, Margarita, and Green Chili. And with a promising start like this, the Cantina will likely build on its legacy for many years to come.