Editor’s Note: La Cantina opens on February 16, 2022.
You may know Crown Restaurant Group from its flagship venue, Crown Republic Gastropub, where the spotlight is on a variety of pasta dishes. Maybe you’re a fan of Losanti, its Italian-style steakhouse. Or you might prefer to toss back drinks and pizza at the group’s Rosie’s Cocktails & Pies. If so, you may be wondering why this mostly Italian-focused culinary team is planning to serve upscale Mexican food in the old Cheapside Cafe space on Eighth Street.
“It’s something new to our restaurant group that we needed, something fresh,” Chef Anthony Sitek says. “A lot of the flavors we have based restaurants on so far have been very Italian focused—your pastas, your breads. Now we’re branching out and doing something that fits the concept perfectly but also gives us another food avenue.”
It’s true that the cuisine hails from a region new to the group’s Italian-heavy portfolio, but the story behind La Cantina directly aligns with CRG’s main ideal: family. Chef Johnny Curiel (former executive chef at Nada) will run La Cantina’s kitchen. Before that came about, though, his wife, Leah, worked as general manager at Crown Republic. Sitek says he and Curiel became friends over the past year, and it’s out of that relationship more than anything else that La Cantina was born.
“Anybody that works for us, our philosophy is, you work for us, you feel like family,” he explains. “We treat you like family. Everybody is family to us. That’s our big thing.”
And the entire company is focused on preserving family work/life balance, from the five-day workweeks to focus on quality of life. (He adds that some of the staff members are actual family: His sister-in-law is director of operations, while his mother-in-law handles interior design for all the spaces.)
Bringing Curiel on board, first as corporate chef for the group but with eventual plans for La Cantina in the mix, just made sense. The concept started out as a weekly pop-up at Crown Republic, aimed at giving Cincinnatians something new to experience this summer when travel was still limited.
“Every week was a completely different menu and a completely different cocktail list,” Sitek says. “Every week was something new, and people really took to it and loved it.”
The success of the cantina pop-ups quickly led to a lease on a brick-and-mortar space, and now the team is working full-steam on getting La Cantina open this winter. The modern Mexican concept will focus on the seven regions of Mexico.
“Cincinnati has some great Mexican restaurants, but this is a type of Mexican that’s not offered here,” Sitek notes. “A 36-hour black mole? You’re not going to see that on any other menu here. We’ll have a verde mole, a rojo mole, a black mole—every region of Mexico has a different mole.”
True to his approach at CRG’s other restaurants, everything at the eatery will be prepared from scratch in-house. And he’s especially excited for the handmade tortillas, made from Ohio-grown corn that Curiel’s staff will nixtamalize on site.
La Cantina’s cocktail program is helmed by CRG’s longtime beverage director, Alex Stevens, who will design the experience at the 13-seat bar with laser focus on tequila mezcal offerings. “We’re going to try to tie in that whole gluten-free theme to the bar as much as possible,” says Sitek. “It’s really interesting—Corona and Pacifico beers are actually considered gluten-free beers. That’s something we learned.”
At the moment, the Siteks and Curiel are awaiting permitting and other final-stage processes before setting an opening date. But good things come to those who wait. And it’s never too soon to get excited for a 36-hour black mole.
La Cantina, 326 E. Eighth St., downtown, (513) 345-6783, email@example.com