We were meeting our friend at our beloved Mr. Yogato and needed a place to grab a quick dinner beforehand. We wandered down 17th, passing several bars and a McDonald's, before we settled on La Frontera Cantina. B raised a skeptical eyebrow at me for selecting a place with the word "cantina" in it. As we've mentioned, we haven't had good luck with authentic Mexican food in DC, and B was scarred for life by eating at the Cactus Cantina two nights in a row. Long story...
With fear in our hearts, we entered La Frontera and weren't encouraged when we found the restaurant to be nearly empty. Our fear turned to smiles when our waiter presented our appetizer: one cheese and one meat pupusa served with a side of tangy salsa and marinated cabbage.
Being from LA (times we mentioned being from LA = 1.6 million and counting), the concept of the pupusa is new to us. LA is chock full of authentic Mexican food places but El Salvadorian restaurants aren't as easy to find. In DC, there are pupuserias all over the place. A pupusa is a thick corn cake stuffed with cheese, beans, or meat. You say pupusa, I say yummy.
After the pupusas, we waited a really long time for our entrees. This struck us as odd because there were only two other people in the whole restaurant and they had already eaten! Finally, the waiter placed my cheese enchiladas (exciting, I know) in front of me and I noticed that the cheese on top looked a little congealed. I cut into enchilada numero uno and expected cheese to ooze out. Apparently these enchiladas were not descendants of the ooze family. The cheese inside was almost solid. I'm guessing it had been sitting on the counter for a long time while the cook prepared B's entree.
This is a perfect example of why B asks the waiter for his recommendation. I went with my old standby and got crappy (and cold) enchiladas. B took the waiter's advice and got a really tasty fish special. Game, set, match: B.
The bottom line is: La Frontera isn't bad but it wasn't remarkably good either. I think it's meant to be visited on a sunny summer day when you can lounge on the large patio and drink margaritas. On this cold winter's night, my cold enchiladas left me shivering. Thanks to the Hot Chocolato at Mr. Y for warming me up!
Second Thoughts From B
The menu describes the fish of the day as "a real treat," encouraging you to "ask your waiter." Like so many things in life, you'll save yourself a lot of trouble (and bad enchiladas) by just following instructions. When I asked, I got an enthusiastic endorsement for the snapper and heard a long list of fool-proof ingredients such as butter, garlic, onions, and mushrooms.
My fish was good, but certainly not memorable. Perhaps this is because just about anyone can throw those things in a pan and come out with something passable. What I will remember is the pupusas and the plantains. You could argue that this is not because they were exceptional but because neither are regular parts of my diet. I might even agree with you. But the ironic thing with that argument is that less than a month later, J and I spent a week in Puerto Rico where we consumed enough plantains to last a lifetime.
The bottom line is that like most restaurants in DC that claim to be Mexican or Tex-Mex or something in that genre, La Frontera Cantina is serviceable. I wouldn't ever seek it out, but if we found ourselves there again, there are items on the menu that are pretty good. If you don't believe me, just ask the waiter.