Diners and cantinas … ’cause I’m that kind of gal

Includes: Elmo’s Diner, Durham, NC and Cantina South, Raleigh, NC

Actually, I’m not that particular about venues, as long as the food’s good. At times, I’ve enjoyed better vittles at a hole-in-the-wall joint than at over-priced, frou-frou establishments whose reputations have grown to exceed their fare.

I had a lovely, comfort-food brunch dish at Elmo’s Diner after shopping with my friend John at Durham’s awesome farmers market last Saturday. (Why I didn’t take photos of what is one of the Triangle’s best markets I can’t explain … )

Let me begin to describe my dish by admitting I never make grits at home. I don’t know why. It’s not as though they’re hard to find or difficult to cook. But because I only eat them when dining out, they always seem like a treat.

I’m happy that grits have moved beyond the butter-salt-pepper breakfast-style treatment. (While most Southerners love this traditional preparation, our brethren from other parts — especially the North — are often unimpressed.) Chefs are doing all kinds of fun and even upscale things with grits these days.

My Elmo’s dish wasn’t what I’d call upscale, but it was creamy and homey and flavorful. Cheese grits topped with sauteed peppers and onions, and diced fresh tomatoes and scallions, served with two over-easy eggs and a grilled biscuit. What more could anyone want?

The diner Saturday, the cantina Sunday. That evening Liz and I went to Cantina South, which opened just a few weeks ago in the old Bogart’s space on Glenwood South. One of the owners is a former co-founder of Rocky Top Hospitality (the umbrella group comprised of Twisted Fork, Tribeca Tavern, etc. — and formerly Bogart’s and Michael Dean’s). The chef was a consultant for the openings of Mez and Jibarra. I could see some  similarities to all those entities in the decor and menu.

The ambience is classy Mexican/Western. I especially like the bottle chandeliers, pictured here. The only element I didn’t care for is the design of the large, dark-wood, round tables, which are higher in the middle and slope slightly downward toward the edges, kid of like a mushroom. They look cool but aren’t very practical. We experienced a sliding plate and I lost a knife to the floor!

As is trendy these days in finer Mexican restaurants, guacamole is made table-side, and there’s a veritable plethora of tequilas available. We didn’t avail ourselves of either (I had a great draft Negra Modelo — my first not-in-the-bottle of that brand), but I chuckled to watch the guac routine at a nearby table. Instead of the typical gigantic stone mortar-and-pestle-like thing, Cantina South mixes it in a white bowl. And the server put on latex gloves! It was kind off weird and off-putting. It’s not surgery, for goodness’ sake! And it’s not like he mushed the ingredients with his hands. Oh well … I’m sure it tastes fabulous. I just hope I can keep the grin off my face if I ever order it.

The restaurant’s website menu is offline today, so I’ll have to rely on memory and won’t be able to tell you the exact names of the dishes we enjoyed. And I mean enjoyed. Despite the little nitpicks I noted above, of all the local upscale Mexican spots Cantina South ranks at the top for me. The menu is the most varied, and while it’s pricey, the value is good.

For an appetizer we ordered a quesadilla that included cuitlacoche (also huitlacoche). I was excited, as I’d seen a Mexican cooking show about it (Rick Bayless, maybe?) and have been intrigued ever since.

I have to explain right off the bat that cuitlacoche is a a nasty-looking fungus that grows on corn. But look beyond its looks! Although most American farmers view this “corn smut” as a blight and work to prevent it, in Mexico and among higher-brow foodies in the States it’s considered a prized delicacy and is actually cultivated.

In fact, there have been attempts in recent years to refer to cuitlacoche as “Mexican truffle” in an attempt to increase its appeal. Even at Cantina South, when I asked our server if that word was, as I suspected, the name for the corn fungus, he said they’re describing it to patrons like a tasty, unique mushroom. Anyway, I was eager to try it.

The quesadilla was delicious, and I could see black blobs of cuitlacoche poking out around the edges. (Sorry about the photos; again, dim lighting strikes.) But honestly, the goat cheese flavor overpowered everything else. Next time I order it I’m going to ask for less cheese and more cuitlacoche.

We shared two entrees: fish tacos and vegetarian enchiladas. Both were scrumptious and spicy — the tacos especially had a nice heat. There was also a crunchy, lightly fried little somethin’-somethin’ served alongside the enchiladas. We weren’t at all sure what it was, but it was delectable.

Since the Cantina South pics are so bad I’ll throw in a bonus photo below. French toast I made with some great lemon herb bread I bought at the Durham farmers market — bread, half and half, egg, vanilla, cinnamon. Drizzled with honey.

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About atarheeltastes

I'm a passionate foodie who started this "temporary" blog during a gustatory tour of Tuscany. I decided to continue, since I love to dream about, plan for, prepare, eat and write about food!
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