I'm one of those diners that loves the authentic little places that can easily get missed if you are looking for one of the mainstream restaurants that stand out from the road. You know, the one with flashing lights and a $5-an-hour guy in a rubber artichoke suit waving you in to try the 23-year-old chef's newest creation -- avocado ice cream with sun-dried chocolate tomato buttons and a guava foam that you can see, but not really taste.
Now, as an old restaurant parade-horse, I admit there is a place for just about all things food. After all, this business has provided my family with a good life for more than 40 years. All things being equal, I'll take the place that focuses on the taste, quality and freshness of the ingredients, and puts the effort into providing me with a good, unique and out-of-the-mainstream meal for a fair and reasonable price, over "avocado boy" nearly every time. I like a dining "event" as much as the next person, don't get me wrong, but sometimes I just want tasty and real.
Such is the case with Cancun International Restaurant, 705 S. Lewis Ave. It's just a little tan building on the east side of the road, with small treasures inside.
In Mexico, pastor -- or spicy pork -- is as common as a ground beef taco is in Texas or Oklahoma. In fact, there are taquerias devoted entirely to this wonderful dish. In Mexico pork is marinated with spices -- OK ... yes, secret spices -- for several days, and then roasted in a wood fired oven with fresh, ripe pineapple on top. People guard the spice recipes with their life, so don't expect anyone to give up their version without a restraining chair and fingernail pullers. It's a precious commodity. The pineapple flavor makes it's way down through the meat along with the pork fat and seasonings, and becomes a fantastic combination of spices, pork and sweetness. You won't find it at that "ding dong" place, or pretty much anywhere else in Tulsa, but you will here.
Fresh, warm chips allowed us to dip into a slightly spicy fresh tomato salsa, which was very good. Despite the small charge for the second serving, we ordered more.
I am an absolute freak for posole, a tasty soup, almost stew, of pork and hominy, with chilies, onions and spices. It's traditionally served with flour tortillas, and they make a perfect "sopper." I ordered a small bowl as an appetizer, along with a Super Torta.
What is unique about Cancun, (the restaurant, not the other one) is the variety of selections available as your meat choice on many of the dishes. The pastor mentioned above is just one. Other choices include skirt steak, the grainy piece of meat that actually comes from the inside of the rib cage. It is cooked London Broil style, charred on a hot grill, allowed to rest until the hot, expanded cells return to their normal size and sliced on the bias, or against the grain and at an angle in thin slices. It's a good idea to marinate it first for about 120 days or so (kidding, kidding), but a day or two really helps.
You can have many of the items also with Lengua (or beef tongue), shredded pork (carnitas), Chorizo (Mexican sausage), pescado (fish), chicken or chivo, which translates to goat.
Don't knock it till you try it!
Almost all the items available on the menu, from tacos and tostadas to burritos and enchiladas, offer the choice of any of the meats described.
That includes the Torta that I ordered. Essentially a Mexican sandwich the size of an 11-pound bowling ball, with refried beans, fresh vegetable, a good pickled jalapeno, avocado and your meat choice. It is sometimes served "wet" or with an ancho sauce over it, but this one was served dry. I chose braised beef cheek. Does the name conjure up an image you prefer not to see? Maybe this will help. When we say cheeks in this case, we're talking about the one closest to the skull, not the one closest to the tail. Feel better now?
It is a deliciously marbled piece of meat from the head of the animal (it's actually called Cabeza, such as when your wife or husband tells you you're loco en la cabeza), but obviously a bit tough in it's natural state. The more the muscle of the animal is used, the more enzymes flow through it. The more enzymes, the more flavor, but also the tougher it is. So, a quick sear or medium rare grilling is not the way to go. It should be braised in a hot, flavored liquid for hours until it's tough tissues become fork tender and succulent.
Any braised dish, such as short ribs, pot roast or pork butt, should be allowed to cool in it's braising liquor to reabsorb the juiciness and flavor, and this certainly tasted like it had. It was absolutely terrific.
My wife went for a selection off the combo section. A three enchilada plate: one lobster, one crab and one shrimp enchilada. A sucker for anything shellfish, she said it was very good, except that one of the enchiladas got mixed up for a chicken one. Even so, it was a minor error, and was still good.
Our service was very efficient, and in spite of the fact that the server had a cast on one leg, we never wanted for anything. And she basically worked the whole dining room. There were several youngsters working the floor as well, clearing plates and refreshing waters, but other than that I am pretty sure she had worked that rodeo before.
Other combo plates satisfied pretty much anything one could think of: a cheese, chicken and beef combo; an enchilada, tamale and taco combo; a sour cream chicken, chili verde chicken and beef combo; and so on.
We were particularly impressed with the amount of Dinner Plate choices available. For a little place, this is a huge menu. Whoever is working in the back has it all organized and detailed. The key with any kitchen is to use your ingredients as many times as you possibly can to create as many dishes as you possibly can. It keeps all your products fresh and rotated, and cuts down on how much real estate each menu item takes up. This guy or gal has it down. There are the standard Chimichangas, flautas, and tamales, but in addition there are some interesting dinner items available as well. Items such as Huevos Rancheros or Huevos con Chorizo, Chili Verde and Chili Colorado, Pollo Diabla, Fajitas and this one that sounds really good -- seared pork chops, black beans, rice, and plantains called Chuletas.
One last thing: If you've never tried a Jarrito, the Mexican soft drink, you owe it to yourself to try one. My favorite is the lemon/lime but it comes in a variety of flavors, including tamarindo, made from the extract from tamarind paste, a popular flavor in the rest of the world but a little twangy for us folks in the U.S. so far. But no worries, it comes in everything from strawberry, mandarin, pineapple, grapefruit, mango, guava, watermelon and a ton of others. Good stuff!
They even have that classic Mexican favorite for the little ones known as Pollo Nuggeto, or as we like to say here north of the border, Chicken Nuggets. Ole!
Give them a try -- you won't be disappointed.
Cancun International Restaurant
705 S. Lewis Ave.
HOURS: Monday-Friday 11am-9pm; Saturday-Sunday 10am-9pm Closed Wednesdays
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