By Frank Sabatini Jr.
As we began perusing the menu at Del Sur Mexican Cantina in South Park, our waitress interjected to describe the fare as “Mexican grandmother food with healthy twists.”
After indulging shamelessly in too many butter-laced dishes over Thanksgiving, we took comfort in knowing the frijoles achieve their creaminess from olive oil instead of lard. Seasonal fish that appears in certain items is locally sourced and grilled — no battered, fried stuff from what we could see. And if you come knocking for a salad, the “cantina” medley combines about 10 different veggies with charred panela cheese and citrus vinaigrette.
Yet the homey and matriarchal approach to cooking turns rather sophisticated at Del Sur when you consider dishes that incorporate things like silky poblano crema, spiced chayote squash, and elusive jackfruit, which fascinated us when eating it in a taco. Compared to most other cantinas around town, there’s an appeasing gourmet factor at work here.
Del Sur was launched in March by business partners Lauren Passero and Kate Grimes, who also own Kensington Café and The Haven Pizzeria. The address formerly housed Brabant Bar & Café and the globally inspired Vagabond some years before that.
All the charm of the space has been retained; a sidewalk patio with flower boxes leads into a solid, rustic interior marked by a cozy bar, where house-made syrups and fresh fruit juices complement many of the cocktails. Also, the walls now show off bold and colorful sections that were painted to resemble serape blankets.
Warm, bubbly tortillas chips and edgy roasted chipotle salsa arrived swiftly to our table after we sat down. More of the lightweight chips followed with an order of mouthwatering street corn the menu describes as freshly shucked. We had no reason to think otherwise. The corn’s freshness was apparent, even with liberal accents of lime, cotija cheese and the poblano crema.
Another appetizer, the queso crisp, featured a fried (or possibly baked) flour tortilla mantled with cubed chayote, earthy mushrooms, avocado-serrano sauce, the crema, and just enough melted cotija cheese to qualify it as Mexican pizza.
Jackfruit marinated in adobo sauce appears on the menu as an option in tacos. Indigenous to tropical regions of Asia, it’s a bulky tree crop that contains flesh remarkably similar in texture to chicken, hence its rising stardom in vegan restaurants such as Kindred, located several blocks away.
Low in calories and rich in B vitamins, it was my first time trying the fruit, which I’ve admittedly avoided in savory dishes, assuming it would be mushy and overly sweet. I was wrong on both counts, and astounded we were eating a plant-based filling in the taco.
We also shared a combination plate featuring a crispy taco stuffed with shredded beef that I found too salty; a chicken enchilada that was as flavorful as any from a grandmother’s oven; and a chile relleno tamale, which tasted fantastic when the scant green chilies surfaced from beneath the heavy masa exterior.
The dish included rice and beans, and both perked up significantly after drizzling them with creamy habanero sauce parked alongside our table salsa.
Rounding out the menu are items such as plantain tacos, enchiladas suizas, veggie burritos, various tostadas, and carnitas and carne asada plates — a stimulating convergence of uncommon and familiar Mexican dishes that strikes a perfect tone to South Park’s quaint dining scene.
—Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of “Secret San Diego” (ECW Press), and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.