A tip to my South County neighbors: get to Surf Cantina before the Summer People arrive. After Memorial Day, getting a seat at this new surf-inspired eatery is going to be impossible.
The restaurant, on the corner of Canal and Railroad in downtown Westerly, has large garage doors facing the street that will draw the throngs during the summer months. The decor is a lively ode to surf culture, with boards on the walls (one is for sale) beside stunning black and white surf-culture photos. There are two TVs set to surfing channels above the bar, which, incidentally, takes up the entire middle of the large restaurant, signaling that Surf Cantina wants to be a place where you can kick back and unwind with one of their signature cocktails.
Full disclosure: for someone who loves to write about food, I am a picky eater. When I eat out, I stick to items I love rather than adventure my way through the menu. (I only tried escargot to impress my now-husband on our first date. It worked!) Knowing this, I asked Surf Cantina’s chef, Frances Medina, to decide our dinner menu and force me out of my comfort zone.
We began our odyssey with cocktails. I usually opt for wine or beer, but at chef Medina’s suggestion, I went with the Big Tommy – a zingy lime-forward margarita – while my husband ordered the Westerly Vice, a strawberry spin on a piña colada. After sampling that drink, I declared we were sharing everything. (That’s romantic, right?)
Our first course started with the Mexican Flatbread, a tortilla covered with refried black beans and Chihuahua Cheese, kicked up with a topping of crispy carnitas. It was flavorful, and with the green chili aioli, had wonderful heat from the pepper.
Chef Medina also sent out the Octopus and Chorizo app. Tender octopus was crisped with a coating of panko breadcrumbs and served on a puree of sweet potato that was covered with a layer of crumbled chorizo. The puree tempered the brine of the fish and the heat of sausage. It was the best seafood dish I’ve ever experienced.
Next up was the tortilla soup. This was all about the presentation. Shredded chicken, tortilla strips, and hominy – a sort of corn grits – were nestled in a deep bowl. A tiny teapot of flavorful broth was poured over right at the table. The tortilla strips provided a satisfying crunch while hominy gave the soup extra texture. There was a subtle kick of spice to the salty broth.
Chef Medina was paying attention when I expressed my love for birria-style meat. So she sent out an order of Birria Tacos. Think of them as a Mexican-style French dip, with shredded beef slow-cooked in a spicy citrus sauce. It’s served with a side of beef consomme used to dip the taco. Once you eat a taco like this, there’s no going back to plain old ground beef.
Our bellies were full, but we weren’t passing up chef Medina’s house-made desserts. First sampled was her local spin on the traditional Tres Leches cake. She adds coffee syrup to the milky bed that surrounds the white cake. With a topping of ground espresso beans, the light coffee flavor doesn’t overpower the delicate cake. Bolder was the bread pudding, an absolute delight for a cinnamon-lover like me. The decadent baked bread-and-custard sweet featured a surprise addition: Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal. Medina topped it with two perfect-portion scoops of cinnamon ice cream.
In keeping with the beachy vibe, the service was casual, but the attention to detail never wavered. For a Tuesday night in the middle of winter, the place was buzzing. Happy patrons filled nearly every table in the expansive front room.
Medina is a self-taught chef who honed her chops at New York’s acclaimed Besito Restaurant Group. For Surf Cantina’s menu, she included nods to Westerly’s local food scene, not only with the Tres Leches cake but also with Soupy Soup, which features local Soppressata and clams, and, of course, a fried calamari app. But your tastebuds will be rewarded if you venture into uncharted territory, even if it’s swapping regular fries for yuca fries or opting for sweet plantains.
If you love Mexican-inspired food, ride the wave to Surf Cantina.
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