Review: Cantina Feliz

Two Distrito alums bring cheery Mexican fare to Fort Washington

LIKE MOST MEXICAN RESTAURANTS in the U.S., where tortillas have long been understood as delivery mechanisms for shredded iceberg lettuce, Cantina Feliz moves plenty of beef tacos and chicken enchiladas and other “safe” fare. But chef Tim Spinner wants Fort Washington foodies to know something: “I have tons of bone marrow in the freezer.”

Spinner, who took over the old Alison Two space in January with his high-school pal and fellow Garces alum Brian Sirhal, used to make tacos with the stuff as chef de cuisine at Distrito. That seems like a bit too much for the ’burbs, so he’s been sneaking it into his spinach instead. Poached in a stock of bacon and pig’s feet, the marrow goes into a chipotle cream sauce, and the result is nothing Popeye could have imagined: a lush, meaty pile of sautéed spinach, every swallow ending in a tingle of smoke-infused spice.

It’s served with a toothsome New York strip marinated in adobo, and together they illuminate the best way to navigate this promising, sometimes delicious and occasionally deafening new place: The further you stray from tortilla-wrapped fare, the better you’ll eat. I’m not knocking the tortillas. The corn variety are handmade, and I wouldn’t steer you away from the ones enfolding moist, crispy-edged pulled pork. It’s just that the mild tacos and enchiladas don’t have enough punch to land a glove on your memory — but other dishes do.

The hiramasa ceviche tastes even better than it looks: Emerald kiwi slices lend the jalapeño-strewn amberjack just the right hint of fruit sugar, and a palate-cleansing scoop of lime sorbet refreshes between bites. A hamachi version submerged in coconut cream isn’t as subtle — the amped-up heat and sweetness suggest a chilled Thai curry — but I’d take it over dessert (skip the mealy tres leches cake and mushy apple-guava tart; stick with the spiced chocolate crema) in a second.

An outstanding pickled artichoke and roasted poblano huarache is aromatic with smoky San Simón cheese and minced truffles, with an understated sweetness from the chokes’ sugared brine. There are Barnegat Bay clams with crumbled chorizo, as funky as a back-alley seafood stall in Puerto Vallarta (yum), and there is out-of-season corn slicked with enough mayo to grease three hoagies (yuck). Drown the memory of the latter with one of Cantina’s 48 tequilas, or a solid margarita, and be glad that Spinner’s instincts usually pay off.

“I would love to do tongue and cheeks and all that other fun stuff,” he says, musing about where those instincts may lead in time. “But this is the first step.” —T.P.