The Toucan Cantina hardly resembles the cantinas of the Old West portrayed in films in which a gritty gunman wipes the last drop of booze from his bearded chin before the big gunfight as dust swirls through the swinging doors. If anything, it is a bit too refined, at least for serving up earthy Mexican food.
The spacious decor highlighted by vaulted ceilings is hardly changed from its prior tenant, the upscale and pricey Island Broiler. It is accented by a mural of a Pacific island, track lighting and paintings of the Southwest. The toucan dominates the mural, hence the name. The lighting and music are more subdued. Even the scantily clad waitresses have been replaced by Nordic males in shorts who look as if they just finished biking to work from Park City. They intensely explain the menu with a quiet assurance.The extensive menu of Mexican specialties is a bit pricey, with dinner prices ranging from $5.75 for bean and cheese burritos to $13.95 for the chipotle rib eye steak dinner. But portions are generous and the large platters arrive at the table steaming. Our meal just lacked the customary zip and zest in the seasonings one expects with Mexican food.
While the chunky fresh tomato salsa that accompanied the complimentary chips was piquant, the other entrees we sampled needed a bit more liveliness. The cantina carnitas ($8.95), with a choice of either chile Colorado or chile verde, came with a large serving of rice, refried beans, steamed tortillas, guacamole and sour cream. The piping hot bowl of beef with the chile Colorado was topped with melted cheese, an unusual touch. And the meat was tender. However, the thick sauce was overly salty without the customary penetrating flavor of the roasted red chiles.
The arroz con pollo mole ($9.95) was a single boneless chicken breast covered with a traditional chocolate mole sauce topped with sour cream. The meat was, as in the other dishes we tried, tender; but as in the case of the chile Colorado, the sauce lacked a distinctive flavor.
A cheese enchilada with the children's plate was adequate; the two large chimichangas (on special for $5.95, usually $8.95) were much too thick and chewy. Any taste of the shredded beef filling was lost in the folds of the large fried flour tortillas.
The distinctive flavor of the fajita sticks ($4.95), marinated chicken and beef grilled on sticks, served as an appetizer, along with the disappointments of the entrees, made us wish we had ordered the fajita dinners, either shrimp ($12.95) or regular choice of beef or chicken ($9.95). The flavors of the marinade and care in the preparation clearly showed the kitchen's strength.
Other appetizer and dinner choices include taquitos and flautas, calamari fritos, several versions of nachos, including an order smothered with enchilada sauce, guacamole and quesadillas. Tostados, burritos, specialty salads, snapper vera cruz and a combination plate called the "Toucan Fiesta" ($10.95) round out the menu.
The flan desserts ($2.85) reflected our frustrations. While the portions were large, this traditional Mexican custard dessert had the texture more of bread pudding than creamy custard. The caramelized sauce was overpowered by whipped cream and a marachino cherry.
Toucan Cantina would easily appeal to those diners who are seeking Mexican style cuisine with a low key flavor served in an upscale ambiance.
Rating: * * 1/2
Toucan Cantina, 1790 E. 4800 South. 272-1044. Open for lunch, Monday through Friday from 11:30 a.m. until 2:30 p.m., Monday through Friday; dinner served 5 until 10 p.m. Open until 11 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. Sunday hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Accepts major credit cards and check with guarantee card.
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