by Erin Thursby
I was upset when Preservation Chophouse shuttered its doors. David Williams was Executive Chef there, so I was happy to hear that he was the helmsman of another restaurant, this time in Ponte Vedra, with a decidedly different flair: Southwestern.
Salty Rock Cantina, mid-range in price, is certainly not mid-range in flavor. Chef Williams creates dishes that simultaneously surprise and give solace in the Southwestern milieu at a decent price. Prices for entrees range from $8-$16 at lunch or dinner.
Salty Rock Cantina is a bar. It has drink specials and gathers quite a crowd on Wednesday trivia nights. But despite that party atmosphere, the dining area is separated by a wall, so that you may enjoy your dining before or after joining the jovial fracas. Salty Rock is a casual dining experience, but they serve exceptional fare and it’s comfortable whether you’re there for the bar or the restaurant experience. They’re also open for lunch.
The salsa has a stealthy heat that launches a sneak attack around the fifth bite. Chef Williams says that he was more concerned with flavor than heat, one reason why the heat is built on a backbone of roasted tomatoes. He also wanted to appeal to a broad base of tastes. It’s easier to add heat than take it away, so there’s hotsauce on the tables should you want to kick things up a notch.
Shrimp and grits have been a longtime favorite of mine. I love that they can be made in so many different ways. At the Salty Rock Cantina, they are of course served with a Southwestern flair and they do not disappoint. It’s a cake of lightly spicy cheddar grits is surrounded by ancho honey glazed shrimp and slices of chorizo sausage.
For the main course, I opted for the three enchilada dish: chicken, steak and cheese. As a fan of dark meat, I was pleased to find the chicken enchilada filled with savory dark meat. The queso blanco of the cheese enchilada was of excellent quality. But the crowning glory of the dish was the steak enchilada. It’s topped with a complexly flavored red ancho sauce, savory with a hint of sweet chili, cinnamon and even chocolate, which darkly shines through, a rich bitterness that is at first indefinable, but lends a deeper character to the sauce. On the inside, I found well-marinated steak , tender and with its own flavor, a complement to the sauce. The steak is marinated in Dos Equis beer and about a dozen spices for 24-hours. Just delicious.
I was intrigued by their scallop choices, both the seared scallops with a red chili pecan, fried yucca and poblano grits and the scallop pizza, tostada topped with sliced thin scallops, red onions, peppers, Chihuahua cheese (also known as queso menonita for the Mennonite communities that first produced the soft cow’s cheese in Northern Mexico). Vegetarian options are the cheese enchiladas, refried beans and the portobello fajitas. Their Tequila Lime Chicken and their Roasted Pork Ranchera also caught my eye under house specialties. It’s going to be a tough decision the next time I go!
Desserts deliver some of the complexity the entrees do, but they are still familiar enough to serve as comfort food. The Chocolate Chili Brownie, topped with a simple syrup made from a very sweet chili. Anyone who likes the proverbial brownie with ice cream will not find this too far afield from that choice. I enjoyed the deep fried mango cheese cake, especially the lime zest in the cake.