When Cantina Laredo opened in December 2003, the gourmet Mexican restaurant prided itself on providing a contemporary spin on traditional Mexican recipes. Thirteen years later, the venue has become one of the jewels in Westchase District’s culinary crown (or sombrero, take your pick), all the while maintaining a modern-day look, atmosphere and menu.
Founded in Dallas in 1984, the upscale chain is owned by Consolidated Restaurant Operations, Inc. and was named by Restaurant Business magazine the fastest growing full-service Mexican brand. The Westchase District location is one of only a dozen stateside (there are international sites in Abu Dhabi and London). Part of that growth is due to franchise agreements such as the one held by General Manager John Vargas, who represents a true Westchase District success story.
One of the longest-serving GMs at any Cantina Laredo with 13 years at the same location, Vargas purchased the restaurant with a group of investors two years ago and immediately began extensive renovations. “We moved the entrance which really opened up the space,” he said. Other improvements include: a private dining room that seats 26; all new furniture, booths and tables; fresh paint inside and outside; and upgraded restrooms. “I listened to feedback from the ladies,” he added, “They wanted bigger mirrors, more lighting and hooks for their purses, so they got it all.”
Amazingly, all of the remodeling occurred while the restaurant stayed open. “Over a two year period we only had to close the restaurant early once,” he said. “The rest of the work was completed after hours and we were cleaned up and ready for customers the next day.”
Cantina Laredo’s menu has stayed fresh over the years as well. Known for its margaritas made with top-shelf tequilas and fresh lime juice (“no powders, no mixes,” Vargas said), the restaurant occasionally rolls out new drinks for each season. One unique offering is the restaurant’s tequila dinner, an exclusive four-course meal served only once a quarter that features tastings of premium tequilas. “They’re not something that’s ever on the menu,” Vargas said. “The chef may not make these specialties for another several years.”
Despite many menu changes, Vargas makes sure that regular customers requesting older, off-menu items are accommodated. “At my restaurant, no one is allowed to say ‘no’ to the customer,” he said. “We’ll always find a way to say ‘yes.’ I’ll run across the street to Whole Foods for the ingredients if I have to.” One thing customers can enjoy regularly is live music, provided by Mary’s Band. “Mary’s been with me for 13 years as well,” he said. “She and her band play salsa, bachata, cumbia and Latin jazz every Thursday, Friday and Saturday.”
While customers dining at the restaurant enjoy a lively, modern atmosphere, Vargas said the majority of his customers come through his healthy catering business. “I’m proud to say we do more caterings than any Cantina Laredo in the world,” he said. “I have corporate clients in and around Westchase District who order regularly. I have one client who has us cater lunch four times a week every week for 140 people. A lot of it isn’t even Mexican food – they’re that impressed with what we can do,” he said. “I’ve catered Italian weddings and even served a lady a bowl of fresh cucumbers. Again, whatever the customer wants, we’ll always find a way to say ‘yes.’ I don’t think there are a lot of restaurants around who can say that.”
11129 Westheimer (at Wilcrest)