Cabana Grill freshens up Mex options in Mandarin

Posted by on Jan 28, 2015 in Dining, Jacksonville | No Comments

Cabana Grill MandarinFrom greasy-spoon old-school to nouveau gourmet, it’s not hard to find Mexican food on the First Coast that meets just about any timeframe, budget or appetite.

Somewhere in the middle, fast-casual Mex outlets like Moe’s Southwest Grill, Tijuana Flats and Chipotle promote smaller menus, fresh ingredients, salsa and hot sauce bars, modern, artsy and almost hipster-fabulous dining rooms, and free Wi-Fi. Think classy digs on a college student budget. That’s fast casual.

(Unfortunately, unlike the greasy spoons, the fast casuals aren’t so forthcoming with the complimentary chips and salsa. Get me a salty top-shelf margarita in an obnoxious glass stat, and I’ll tell you more!)

Enter Cabana Grill, the East Coast incarnation of a Texas fast-food staple that’s been around nearly four decades, Taco Cabana. Jacksonville is home to the second store of the new brand (the first opened last April outside Atlanta) at 10422 San Jose Blvd. in Mandarin.

IMG_3900Since its opening December 10, I’ve visited the Mandarin location not quite a handful of times, my culinary scalpel at the ready (cleverly disguised as an iPad). Cabana deals in tacos, bowls and burritos, nachos and quesadillas, many available either a la carte or as combo plates. Entrees generally live in the $5-7 range. In other words, two-wheel-drive-safe fast-casual terrain.

While menu items are few, you can get them dressed in a variety of proteins or veg styles, with premium toppings and alongside any of eight side items ($1.09-3.59), from Mexican rice to Mexican potatoes.

The process is straightforward: order at the counter, approve your order on the screen and pay up, take a number and proceed to the dining room, where a server will eagerly hunt you down wielding a plastic tray. You have two optional pit stops – the Coca-Cola dominated soda fountain, and the complimentary salsa bar, which boasts about a dozen colorful dressings of the chunky, saucy and fiery type.

IMG_3901On my most recent visit, I dialed up a Chicken Fajita Burrito ($5.49) nicely dressed with refried black beans and cilantro lime rice (for most entrées, you choose the bean and rice flavors). And since the burritos don’t come with a side, as with most entrees here, I tacked on a small Mexican potatoes ($1.09; admittedly, a splurge).

Obviously the kitchen is haven to some professional wrappers. That burrito was bundled up tight! But once you unravel things, be ready with a fork for cleanup duty. Ingredients were fresh as advertised and it was a satisfying, voluminous entrée.

IMG_3899Remember the Waffle House hashbrown ordering instructions? You know … scattered, smothered, covered, chunked, cubed, etc., etc. The Mexican potatoes aren’t far off in their “all-the-way” configuration. Think breakfast potatoes covered in onion, tomato, cilantro and jalapenos, and finished with mild asadero cheese.

If you’re a professional sweet tooth, the pickings here are slim. Cabana offers sopapilla pastries dusted with cinnamon and sugar (small for $1.29; large, $1.99). I haven’t tried them yet, but they’re on my list.

If adult beverages are the way you satisfy your sweet tooth (and who’s judging?), go for the house margaritas. Twelve-ouncers start at $4. Or show up during “happy hour” from 4 to 7 p.m. for buck-50 10-ounce pours and $3.50 nachos. You’ll also find a collection of domestic and import bottled beers.

If I had to compare Cabana with other locals, it’s an squeaky-clean, Ozzie-and-Harriet version of Tijuana Flats, with slightly lower price points than TJ’s, and no crowdsourced pop-art ceiling tiles. You won’t watch your food being created like at Moe’s. But sometimes, that’s just fine, especially when there’s a salsa bar (and complimentary jalapeno slices!) beckoning.

Cabana’s a worthy dine, and an equally worthy break from the San Jose Blvd. madness with dine-in and drive-through service. They’re on Facebook at facebook.com/thecabanagrill.

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