Cantina La Veinte: 20 Kinds of Delicioso

Cantina La Veinte chef Santiago Gomez and chicken molé.
Cantina La Veinte chef Santiago Gomez and chicken molé.

In a yawning space surrounded by inky, lacquered shelves stacked with Mexican folk art, sharply dressed business types negotiate over pale-green margaritas. Two men wearing matching Piguet watches and Ferragamo belts are trailed by their wives, both pushing strollers and toting Chanel purses as they make their way to an onyx-colored table.

See also: Photos of Cantina La Veinte in Brickell

Inside Cantina La Veinte.
Inside Cantina La Veinte.

Across the sprawling, 210-seat dining room of Cantina La Veinte, the luxurious Mexican restaurant that opened on the ground floor of Icon Brickell in mid-August, more than a dozen kitchen staff scramble to stay ahead of the weeknight buzz, browning tortillas and simmering large vats of fragrant soups like caldo de camarón. Impeccably dressed waiters, each sporting an electric-pink bow tie, describe the contents of the two-page bill of fare featuring tortas -- Mexican sandwiches slathered with black beans and topped with cod or braised pork and avocado. They rave about the fideo seco, a classic Mexican comfort dish of thin noodles simmered in a spicy-sweet tomato chipotle sauce topped with creamy goat cheese and cilantro.

All of the pageantry may seem excessive, but this restaurant, owned by Mexico's largest hospitality company, Cinbersol Group S.A., is not your average nacho spot. It is the company's first U.S. restaurant and its 20th brand (thus the veinte in the name). The firm spent more than $14 million to buy the real estate and transform the space into an art deco hideaway that is part Rat Pack and part Mexican art museum. Cinbersol follows other Mexican developers and buyers into Miami. Among them are Agave Holdings, a developer tied to spirits company Jose Cuervo, and Cinemex, which plans a luxury movie theater at Brickell City Centre.

"We were aware the value would go up because of all the things that were going on in the Brickell area," says Alberto Cinta, a Mexican politician who cofounded Cinbersol.

Cantina La Veinte is unusual for Miami-Dade, where Mexican dining is mostly limited to mom-and-pop places in Little Havana and Homestead. Yet if any Latin cuisine deserves high-end treatment, it is Mexico's. There are many deeply regional, decidedly complex dishes whose origins date back thousands of years.

 

Cantina La Veinte's Vuelue a la vide, a mixed seafood ceviche in a tomato-lime sauce.
Cantina La Veinte's Vuelue a la vide, a mixed seafood ceviche in a tomato-lime sauce.

Among the most iconic is the tortilla. At one corner of the kitchen here, a slowly rotating plancha is lined with nearly two dozen corn rounds. Their edges curl slightly when they're ready to be flipped. Chewy, slightly stretchable, and just a touch flaky, they are a world away from the chalky, store-bought variety. A light salt dusting amplifies the corn's nutty-sweet flavor. As expected, they're featured throughout the menu and most prominently in tacos.

They even hold up well when stuffed with jiggly pads of beef marrow culled from a pair of roast bones split lengthwise and presented on a large stone platter. The dish risks being too rich, but the addition of diced onion and cilantro, along with a dollop of a refreshing green tomatillo salsa, helps round off each bite.

More tortillas, this time flour, come wrapped around three creamy soft-shell crab halves that boast a distinct, salty ocean flavor in a crisp crust. They're propped up in shot glasses half-filled with a spicy, creamy jalapeño sauce that you'll want to dip into again and again.

La Veinte focuses on more than tortillas. This fact becomes clear when waiters distribute iPads loaded with 200 varieties of tequila and 100 kinds of mezcal. The latter is in the midst of a boom and certainly worth a try. Similar in flavor to tequila, it is commonly made from the heart of the maguey, a type of agave, which is roasted underground before its sap is fermented. The process imbues the drink with an earthy, smoky flavor that plays well in the bar's not-too-sweet cocktails. Be forewarned: The margaritas here are phenomenally expensive and can easily climb into the $20 range and above depending upon the spirit you choose.

 

Stuffed ancho chili.
Stuffed ancho chili.

Some main plates, such as a $105 dry-aged rib eye, also reach astronomical prices. Instead, you might want to opt for the pechuga de pollo en mole. The restaurant won't reveal the fine sauce's recipe, but mole is generally made with at least two dozen ingredients, chiefly chilies, chocolate, and nuts, alongside a variety of seasonings and possibly day-old bread. Cantina's version leans toward the sweeter side and doesn't quite strike the right balance of spices. Moreover, it's draped on a bland, dry chicken breast. Lathering a roasted, bone-in chicken or even a grilled chicken thigh in the thick sauce would be a significant improvement.

The dish you'll return for, a smoky-spicy stuffed ancho chili ($12), is also one of the menu's lowest-priced offerings. What was once a poblano pepper has been dried until it is wrinkled and deep-red and black. At Cantina La Veinte, it is seeded, soaked in water, boiled to make it pliable, and packed with juicy bits of skirt steak and creamy Oaxaca cheese. The whole thing is draped in a velvety black bean purée, a light yet rich avocado cream, and a squiggle of sour cream that you'll struggle to load onto every bite.

Such bargain delights are rare at Cantina La Veinte and even rarer in this ever-trendier part of town. Despite the high prices, the restaurant offers consistent cuisine and attentive service that is all too uncommon. Staff is intricately familiar with each dish and its ingredients. They're happy to make recommendations, though their suggestions are also some of the priciest choices.

Where Mexican food, and Cantina La Veinte, excels is in simplicity and letting the food speak for itself. A half-dozen churros glittering with a dusting of sparkly sugar are a crisp, sweet, and satisfying end. Sure, $9 is steep for fried dough and dulce de leche, but after $40 worth of tacos and margaritas, you're committed. Plus, if you're like most of the clientele here, you'll head back to your million-dollar pad a few floors up without a care in the world.

Dobladitas de jaiba suave (soft-shell crab tortillas) $21

Marimba de tuétanos al carbón (bone marrow tacos) $18

Ancho relleno $12

Pechuga de pollo con mole $25

Churros $9

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Cantina La Veinte

465 Brickell Ave.
Miami, FL 33131

786-623-6135

www.cantinala20.com


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