sangrita grill + cantina: mexican ‘soul food’ in the heart of ka‘anapali

Margaritas/Sangrita Gril & CantinaAficionados of authentic Mexican cuisine rejoice: Sangrita Grill + Cantina is now open at the Fairway Shops in Ka‘anapali. Created by Chef Paris Nabavi, who also owns Pizza Paradiso Mediterranean Grill in Honokowai, Sangrita offers inspired versions of genuine Mexican soul food, plus Maui’s largest selection of artisanal tequila and mezcal.

“Nothing on this menu is like anything you’ve ever tasted before,” Chef Paris tells Janet and me as we sit down at one of the rustic wood tables in Sangrita’s charming dining room. “This is serious Mexican food like what you’d find in Mexico City—the heart of Mexico.”

Paris didn’t fool around when selecting a chef de cuisine for Sangrita. Eduardo Pineda hails from (where else?) Mexico City, where he cooked in top hotels and restaurants both there and in Baja. Chef Eduardo’s knowledge of regional Mexican food allows him to marry authentic flavors and techniques with the creative use of local ingredients to produce a menu that is at once familiar and surprising.

Paris found Eduardo when he visited Austin, Texas, on a multi-city “chef search.” “Eduardo was working for his cousin at Papi Tino’s, which was his first job in the United States,” recalls Paris. “I invited Eduardo, along with three other candidates I’d selected, to come to Maui and ‘audition’ for the job. I didn’t make it easy for any of them. Eduardo was calm and very organized. He had all of his recipes on his iPad.”

Deciding on a small-plate concept for Sangrita “goes against the grain of traditional Mexican restaurants,” Paris says. In fact, their motto is: The Shared Dish Tastes Twice as Good. And despite popular belief, eating rice and beans as side dishes is not traditional in Mexico, Paris tells us. “That’s what’s known as ‘Tex-Mex,’” he explains. Although you can order black beans and rice ($4) from the Acompanamientos section of Sangrita’s menu, Paris recommends satiating your appetite with an assortment of Eduardo’s creative and flavorful dishes, rather than filling up on rice and beans.

Prior to opening Sangrita, Paris owned the now-closed Cilantro Mexican Grill, which used to occupy a spot in the Lahaina Center. Die-hard fans of popular Cilantro items like the award-winning Mother Clucker Flautas and the oh-so-tasty Rotisserie Chicken will be stoked to find both those items on Sangrita’s menu. Cilantro fans will also be delighted to find the ever-affable Scott Fretwell working front of the house at Sangrita.

Janet and I begin our culinary adventure at Sangrita with the Camarones Ceviche ($12) composed of shrimp, watermelon, jicama, and avocado, and served with house-made tortilla chips. The flavors are delightfully clean and bright, and marry well. It’s a pleasant twist on traditional ceviche that’s customarily made with raw fish cured in citrus juice.

Next we dig into two Acompanamientos, which actually work well as appetizers: Street Corn ($8) and Avocado Fries ($7). Paris tells us the street corn is evocative of what you find, well, on the streets of Mexico. “We grill it, roll it in garlic aioli [Sangrita’s version of mayonnaise], and dust it with cotija cheese,” he says. A streak of chili lime powder on the plate provides an option to turn up the heat. I’m here to tell you the street corn is absolutely divine and, truly, isn’t anything made with mayonnaise da bomb? Janet and I also devour the avocado fries, which are deep fried and served with a decadent and creamy cilantro pesto aioli. Although it’s a stretch to say the avo fries are authentic (“We actually made them up!” Paris says with a mischievous smile), they have become one of the most popular menu items. “We go through nine to eleven cases of avocados per day, and we’ve sold more than two thousand servings of them since we opened.”

We’re at a cantina, after all, so it’s practically a requirement that Janet and I have Margaritas. Server Kris brings Janet’s Herbalist Margarita ($12), made with Patron Silver, Green Chartreuse, cucumber, cilantro, habanero shrub, and fresh lime juice. It’s light and refreshing, and the herbaceous flavors blend well. I’ve gone the traditionalist route, ordering the Sangrita Margarita ($12): 123 Organic “Uno” tequila, mango puree, fresh lime juice, agave nectar, and coconut water. All I can say is “Ole!” Our fine friends south of the border sure taught us a thing or two about pairing tequila with Mexican cuisine.

Paris has ordered a veritable cornucopia of dishes for Janet’s and my degustation: Seafood Enchilada with Suiza Sauce ($15 for two); Cocoa-Braised Short Rib Taco ($12 for two); Duck Carnitas Taco ($13 for two); Spanish Octopus a la Parilla ($24); and the Pesca Del Dia (Catch of the Day—$65), the latter being a two-pound whole opakapaka prepared Veracruz style.

We find the enchilada (shrimp, mahi mahi, octopus, and cheese) to be exceptionally creamy in texture with delicate flavors; the short rib taco (boneless beef ribs, jicama slaw, crema fresca, and radish) is comforting, and reminiscent of pot roast; while the duck carnitas taco (fig mole, jicama slaw, avocado, and duck chicarron) is succulent with a complex flavor profile.

Janet and I approach the octopus with a bit of trepidation. Huge, meaty tentacles are presented atop a bed of rice and accompanied by huitlacoche (Mexican corn truffles) and cherry tomatoes. Surprisingly, the octopus is tender and quite tasty, and the huitlacoche and tomatoes bring the dish together nicely. While Janet and I agree we may not have ordered this dish if left to our own devices, we’re glad we embraced the adventure, and are quite pleased with the result.

The whole opakapaka is an incredible example of culinary artistry: cleaned, scored, and deep fried, it’s served on a bed of rice and surrounded by a complex mixture of green olives with pimentos, onions, garlic, white, wine, capers, and tomato. This is a dish to be savored slowly, with every bite being a little explosion of flavors.

This restaurant is named for sangrita—the customary partner to a shot of straight tequila blanco—a non-alcoholic accompaniment that highlights tequila’s crisp acidity, and cleanses the palate between each peppery sip. At Sangrita, one shot of their house-made concoction is complimentary with each blanco tequila order. (It’s $3 per shot for additional rounds, or when ordered a la carte.) Tomato juice and fresh orange juice have been blended with fresh horseradish, garlic, Worcestershire sauce, and Tabasco to make a zesty blend of acidity and savoriness.

Sangrita offers just two desserts, and naturally Janet and I must try them both: Flan De Elote ($8) and Churros ($5). The flan is more cakey than custardy—made with corn and cream cheese—and not overly sweet (which I appreciate). It’s served over yummy and gooey drizzled caramel. The churros are plump little nuggets of decadent cinnamon pastry atop a pool of cajeta (a syrup made with sweetened caramelized milk) and melted chocolate. Both desserts magically disappear from our plates in no time.

You’ll definitely want to become a member of Sangrita’s S.I.P. (Sangrita Important Person) Club, a rewards program for local visitor industry professionals. Sign up on Sangrita’s website, and when the program is up and running later this spring you’ll be entitled to special members-only discounts and offers.

–heidi pool




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