From the entrance of Durango restaurateur Beto Navarro’s restaurant Cantera, located at 1150 Main Ave., it is clear that he has set out to do something unique. The décor and menu pay homage to Mexico in an authentic yet modern way.
Large hand-blown glass droplets hang overhead and appear to rain down near the entryway, refracting turquoise and violet light. A Chihuly-style chandelier is suspended above the main dining area, white charro hats line terracotta-colored walls, and emerald-colored glass rises between the dining booths like ripe agave leaves. The front bar is cozy with a fireplace made from cantera, or quarry stones from Guadalajara, and low-slung couches offer a sleek urban feel. The kitchen is an open floorplan creating a sense of voyeurism and an air of honesty to the hand-prepared dishes.
Navarro, born in Guadalajara, moved to Tucson, Arizona, at the age of 6 and was set on pursuing a career as a professional soccer player. He just happened to fall into the restaurant business, he said, and later became manager at Nico’s Restaurant in Tucson. A business proposition to open a fast-food, Mexican-style restaurant came from one of his regular customers in 2012. One plane ride later to Durango and Navarro was hooked and established Beto’s Restaurant, which is now the southern Macho’s location.
Navarro had plans to improve Macho’s south with the addition of a cantina, but he faced several zoning setbacks. The complications seemed to work in his favor, he said, because he was soon to have a run of good luck. The building at 1150 Main Ave., previously the Lost Dog Tavern, became available and seemed the ideal location to host his long-held vision of a modern Mexican restaurant and bar.
“I told my guys that if we can’t bring something unique to Durango, then let’s not do this,” Navarro said. “We wanted to show that we are not just rice and beans, boots, serapes and mustaches; we are more than the mariachis stereotype.
“Don’t get me wrong, I can eat a bowl of rice and beans all day long,” he said. “But we want to represent Mexico the best we can. Even our uniforms, the Guayabera shirt style is from the Yucatán.”
Navarro made several trips to Nogales, Mexico, to bring back trailer after trailer full of authentic artwork. He then recruited executive chef Yaxkin Andrade to craft a menu. Andrade, originally from Valle de Banderas, in the Mexican state of Nayarit, was educated in law but brings nearly 20 years of cooking experience to the kitchen. He has developed menus for restaurants in Tucson and has traveled nearly every state in Mexico sampling the wide variety of regional foods.
“The best way to get to know authentic recipes, to get to know what real food is, is to eat at the small less-known restaurants,” Andrade says.
Navarro also brought on board mixologist Roberto Delgado from Mexico City. Delgado touts a formal business education, mixology certification and a lifetime of experience tending bars and mixing drinks. He owned a cantina with his mother in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, and helped mix drinks for family gatherings in his father’s small home bar in Mexico City.
The exotic flair and choice ingredients found in Delgado’s drink menu also hint at his time spent working at the famous Garaza Blanca and Musai resorts in Puerto Vallarta.
“We came up with 22 drinks using only natural ingredients like rosemary, ginger, rose petals, guayaba, red peppers, hibiscus, basil, mint, juniper and coriander. I also make my own syrups, infusions and even flavored salts like habañero orange and coriander mint,” Delgado said.
A personal favorite on his menu is the Melrose – a tribute to his wife. “She teased me that I never her gave her flowers, so I came up with the drink for her and made her happy. It features Absolut Raspberry, lime cubes, rose syrup, sparkling wine and rose petals. Our idea is to make everything right here at the restaurant,” Delgado says.
Andrade too, prefers to make everything that he can in-house. His molé poblano features more than 18 different styles of chile, the carnitas are marinated in tequila for over 10 hours, he hand-makes the corn tortillas, is constantly grinding chile guajillo and achiote paste and roasts local goat on a trompo.
“I’ve had customers call me out from the kitchen to give me hugs for my molé poblano and chile en nogada,” he said. “One customer even wrote me a letter, and you know, these four weeks here in Durango working have been the best moments of my life. Well, the best moments have been my kids, but in work, this is it.”
Andrade’s menu includes some of his personal favorites, such as Pescado Zarandeado (grilled and marinated fish split from head to tail), tacos pescados and even octopus.
“Nothing, though, is more traditional Mexican and flavorful than Torta Ahogada,” Andrade said. “It’s a carnitas sandwich drenched in salsa and chile guajillo for a little spicy, spicy heat and makes us all think of home.”
The menu also includes regional dishes like the Mexico City delicacy Mixiote de Chivo – seasoned goat in a guajillo axiote paste and steamed with herbs and spices. The Milanesa, which can be compared to chicken fried steak, is from Sonora. Chile en nogada, a stuffed chile poblano with ground beef, walnuts, onion, tomato, potato and raisins topped with pomegranate and crema tocino, hails from Puebla.
Cantera is six degrees of separation in action as friends who are passionate about Mexico honor their heritage in a modern culinary way. Navarro, Andrade and Delgado all laugh at how everything came together, how their life paths intersected.
“Sometimes the paths of our lives put people way over here and over there, you know,” Andrade said. “But sometimes the paths come together, intersect, and that happened with us. It is just too weird not to be fate.”