Villa Cantina has brought south-of-the-border dishes back to the Village of Arroyo Grande.
The East Branch Street location had been the longtime home of El Taco Loco, but was vacant more than a year before Villa Cantina opened in December 2015 after an extensive remodel.
“Everything was gutted right down to these two 100-year-old brick walls,” co-owner Kori Gomez said. Her partners are two fellow graduates of Arroyo Grande High School — Belinda and Stony Humphries — and her husband, Ron Gomez, a retired San Luis Obispo City firefighter.
Though the three Arroyo Grande High alums have extensive experience in Mexican and fish-and-chips restaurants, the four friends had no plans to open Villa Cantina. “The opportunity just came about,” Kori Gomez recalled. “After we said, ‘Let’s try it,’ it just started rolling.”
The new space takes full advantage of high ceilings and exposed brick walls to give a bright, open feel. The spacious dining area includes a long bar and a few sidewalk tables. Several flat-screen televisions are usually tuned to sports, but with the sound muted except for big games.
The dramatic focal point in the room is an action-packed, mural-size photo of the famous Running of the Bulls in Pamplona, Spain. (Arguably, from the perspective of this shot, it should perhaps be called Running from the Bulls.)
In developing the Villa Cantina menu, “We did a lot of trial-and-error tasting with friends and family — and they’re all very honest!” Gomez said. The result is an appetizing mix of hearty meat-centric dishes and lighter options, plus plenty of choices for vegetarians.
Diners with north-of-the-border palates can also order burgers and fries and fish and chips.
“Everything is made from scratch daily,” Gomez said. “All the beans and rice, salsas and salsas — and the meats are trimmed and marinated every day too.” Fresh tortillas are delivered daily, so all the chips are housemade as well.
Starters include housemade guacamole, a jumbo shrimp cocktail and a trio of street tacos with your choice of beef, chicken, carne asada, carnitas or al pastor. Salads such as the wedge and mixed greens begin with just veggies, but from there you can add charbroiled chicken, carne asada, grilled shrimp or grilled vegetables.
Burritos also offer several options. The Villa and the whopping Jefe allow you to choose your meat filling and sauce. The cheesy Cantina can contain traditional Spanish rice and refried beans — or make it vegetarian with cilantro-lime rice and chipotle black beans.
Vegetarians don’t need to be left out when it comes to sauces, by the way. While the chile verde and chile Colorado are simmered with pork and beef, respectively, the ranchero sauce is made sin carne.
Other popular choices at Villa Cantina include ahi and shrimp street tacos, the carne asada plate with charbroiled top sirloin steak, rellenos ranchero and grilled or deep-fried Baja-style fish tacos. Combinations of tacos, enchiladas, tostadas and sopes are available as well, as are several a la carte options.
The weekend breakfast menu offers everything from huevos rancheros and chilaquiles, to cinnamon roll pancakes and a ham, cheese and egg sandwich.
For beverage options, Villa Cantina serves 16 draft beers with several rotating taps. Wine is also available, and, although there’s not a full bar, you can opt for handcrafted cocktails made with an array of Han spirits from South Korea.
“We wanted to open a casual, comfortable place where all our friends, all the community could hang out,” Gomez said. “We have such a great staff, and everything’s been going in a direction we’re definitely happy about.”
Katy Budge is a freelance writer from Atascadero. Contact her at email@example.com.
106 East Branch St., Arroyo Grande
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday, 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
The scene: A casual neighborhood cantina for meeting friends, gathering with families or grabbing a bite and beverage at the bar.
The cuisine: The Mexican menu offers all the customary dishes, plus lighter options and plenty of vegetarian choices; draft beer, wine and soju cocktails available.
Expect to spend: Most entrées $10 to $15.