Appreciate first that the Castrejon family spent three years building La Cava before its opening in July. When they weren't working next door at Miguel Castrejon's Colorado Pain and Rehab Medical Center — where Patricia is the practice administrator and her son, Orlando Briceno, works as a physical therapy aide — they'd often be meticulously laying stones that now comprise La Cava's walls, for the "wine cellar" effect. Truly, it's stunning.
During that time, Miguel and Patricia also made trips to see her family in Sonora, Mexico. Her sister owns a ranch there that grows a specific species of agave plant, from which she distills and bottles Bacanora, which tastes somewhere between a tequila and a mescal, lightly smoky, boozy and bearing faint vanilla notes from aging on the beans. (Bad news: It's not sold here, but I've tasted it before and it's outstanding.)
While traveling, the couple would ship home thatched wood and leather chairs, large chandeliers and artworks such as an array of Botero-esque plump bicyclist sculptures, which now greet guests in La Cava's entryway, past a small patio. The family laid Brazilian teak floors and Briceno, also a server at the eatery, distressed pine doorway beams with a router bit and lashings with a heavy chain. A 100-year-old bar purchased in Dallas completes the "real, rustic hacienda feel," in Miguel's words, and only an unfortunate sight-line out of the warm-toned dining area into the door of a stark, fluorescent-lit kitchen spoils the full transcendence.
I can't think of being more impressed by any restaurant furnishing job in recent memory, nor as excited by the notion of a higher-end eat and drink spot hidden away in an unassuming office park (just doors down from Smiling Toad Brewery, off Eighth Street). Entering the place almost feels like you've discovered some sort of speakeasy, minus the annoying password at the sliding peephole thingy.
Miguel likens it to being in Sonora, where "on the tucked-away streets is where you find the best foods."
After dinner, lunch and brunch visits, I won't fault him for the superlative language. This is genuine Mexican fare, a welcome contrast to all the ubiquitous Tex-Mex we call "Mexican" 'round these parts. I can almost guarantee you'll taste something you haven't before.
The Chiles en Nogada might be a good place to start: It's a pork-, beef- and dried fruit-stuffed poblano pepper drowned in a pool of thick walnut cream sauce, with garnishing pomegranate seeds drizzled about like a convergence of happy red ants. A touch sweet, it works in layers of unfolding rich textures and flavors, perhaps ambitiously priced at $27, but damn good.
Or order a real (somehow $16) Caesar salad, whisked tableside with ample intense anchovies, egg yolk, shaved Parmesan and olive oil and presented with whole crisp Romaine leaves in a giant wooden bowl. Complimentary warm chips and excellent salsa also arrive on a wood block, and menus too are screwed neatly into strips of cedar.
Mussels and baby shrimp as an appetizer pick up deep earthy spice from chorizo oil, and I'm eager to return for dinner to try all the platos fuertes ("main plates") we didn't get to, from mole to Sonoran green chile pork or a Sonoran-spiced ribeye.
Margarita variations perform beautifully inside cool clay cups, evidenced by a pepino (cucumber) and chili-piquin-laced tamarindo. Even table water gets a fruit flavoring for a thoughtful touch, and jamaica (hibiscus tea) lands pleasantly under-sweetened. Sangrias we sip at brunch simply add a touch of Sprite and lime to Malbec wine, for another welcome, non-cloying drink.
Also at brunch, flank steak with eggs easily gets the job done, as does a proficient plate of properly mushy chilaquiles (fried tortilla shreds) in chile rojo. Chewy, oily chicharrón play nice as well, and all plates host a cup of great cotija cheese-covered refried beans. For lunch, I'm skeptical that two tacos (for $14) will fill me up, but with help from the side of beans, they do. The Super Taco sports crunchy battered tilapia and shrimp bits with slaw and pickled onion, and the jamaica features fried hibiscus flowers, reminiscent of eating squash blossoms, which chew a bit tart with the texture of shredded raw beets. Side hot chili oil benefits both.
Only desserts generally left us wanting (for them not to be garnished in Hershey's), the flan a bit off-texture and typical, and the cream cheese mini-chimis, as well as the chongos (sweet milk curds with cinnamon and ice cream) not leaving any memorable mark.
So La Cava's not a perfect Mexican vacation, but it's certainly a trip well worth taking, for all the scenery and plenty of surprises down that tucked-away street.