Event - Tasting Talent at Matador Cantina

Downtown Fullerton - a harbor of bad reputations but now a struggling land of food revolution and hopefully renovation. Several establishments have been struggling to showcase the area's sophistication through passion and talent. Matador Cantina is one of those places. They may be popular for being open until 2AM, slinging cocktails aplenty, and their lines-out-the-door Taco Tuesday but they are also striving to serve great food and a revised mindset to visitors. Trained at the Scottsdale Campus of Le Cordon Bleu, Founder/Chef David Dennis opened Matador April 2009, focusing on Mexican flavors and ingredients with varying techniques. We were invited to visit one day to taste his talents.

We imbibed Winter Cocktails - our first was the bright and colorful Solstice ($10 - Absolut Mandarin vodka, campari, blood orange puree, club soda, and mint), a dangerously alcohol-subtle drink that quenched our throats and had us wanting more. Befitting of its name in presentation, the second was the Snowflake ($10 - Partida Anejo tequila, horchata, vanilla simple syrup, cinnamon sugar rim, Ghirardelli white chocolate for design), a sweet familiar drink evoking memories of cinnamon and making me want to huddle by a fireplace. The third was their Sparkling Winter Margarita ($10 - Partida Blanco tequila, rosemary simple syrup, cranberry juice, fresh lime juice, and champagne), an easy-to-drink cocktail elegant in both taste and design.

Many dishes on the extensive menu were gluten-free and vegan, a small part of how they try to accommodate guests. In fact, Chef David prides himself in customizing dishes to create the best experience for his customers despite food sensitivities/allergies. One example he shared was a customer allergic to black pepper. Because of Matador's willingness to work with limitations, the customer now returns several days a week!

The first plate to come out was playfully colorful, their Chile Relleno ($14 - chicken, Oaxaca cheese, cream cheese, and green chiles stuffed in a multi-colored tortilla-crusted Poblano served with roasted tomatillo avocado sauce, salsa fresca, cilantro lime rice, and refried beans). With the colors of the nation, this was a patriotically Mexican dish with the refinement of taking a homestyle dish to the next level. The first dig into the chile with a fork produced an audible crunch as did each bite. It was spicy but came with sides to help cool down any heat. The small pool of tomatillo and avocado puree for a sauce hurried us into finishing off the chile lest it become soggy but the fear of sogginess was misguided; the crust's thickness stayed crunchy. I homed in on the cilantro lime Jasmine rice cooked in chimichurri, giving a strong cilantro taste cut with a natural zestiness from the lime. Also note the julienned pico de gallo - a different spin to tradition.

Our next plate felt Duc's hunger-driven demolition. When chorizo came wrapped in squares of pasta, he did not pay much attention to it...until I revealed its filling. Trying to keep a food photographer from eating one of his favorites before getting a shot in is not an easy task! However, we managed to get photos of the Chorizo Ravioli ($14 - stuffed with spicy chorizo, beef, and Cotija cheese and blanketed with chipotle cream sauce) before diving into its savory center. The fresh pasta was soft, and the Mexican chorizo oils were kept tame by the cream sauce on top and bread crumbs inside. Each piece was well-stuffed and proved a formidable adversary for the stomach real estate taken up by our past bites of the chile relleno. Try this for its use of Mexican ingredients with an Italian technique.

The favorite of the day was hands down the Banh Mi Tostadas ($8 - Vietnamese pork topped with pickled root vegetables and a sunnyside-up quail egg), a plate that so perfectly captured the flavors and textures of banh mi despite being presented in a different way that we were pleasantly shocked. While many restaurants label dishes "banh mi," Duc and I struggle to find dishes worthy of using that descriptor. This tostada's cabbage and pickled vegetables really threw everything authentically on point. We loved the tostada's crunch that mimicked banh mi's cut-the-roof-of-your-mouth baguette without the mouth pain. The fried quail egg made it endearing, and the presentation had a necessary nod to Sriracha. We'd come back several times just for this.

Next came Sangria Braised Short Ribs ($16 - braised short ribs served with a sangria-veal auce, chipotle potato pancake, and agave-glazed carrots), tender and uniquely prepared. As lovely as the braise was and the enjoyable sear, the plate's stars were its accompaniments - sweet carrots and a potato pancake bound with Pepperjack. The carrots were roasted with agave which brought out natural sweetness. The pancake fulfilled any desire for a texture akin to hashbrowns. The second meaty dish was Steak A La Plancha ($16 - grilled flat steak topped with cilantro chimichurri and pickled red onions, served with plantains and grilled vegetables), another favorite due to how tender and flavorful the steak was. The knife slid through so smoothly and easily that I could hardly believe I was handling steak. Paired with grilled squash and zucchini, this dish had balanced texture and a blend of savory, salty, sour (via pickled shallots), and sweet (via plantain).

Chef David Dennis was also proud of his salsas as they were all made from purees - salsa, red sauce, green sauce, and mole. Give them a try with chips. If you're interested in visiting Matador, they serve meals all day and  try to have something for everyone. Also, if the photos didn't convince you of how delectable their food is, they've got a Golden Foodie Award for Best Mexican Food to back them up! Our thanks go out to Chef and Jill!

Photography by Duc Duong. More photos available on Facebook here.

The Matador Cantina on Urbanspoon