Hidden 'wine cellar'
If you've by now located Smiling Toad Brewery at the rear of an office park off Eighth Street, then you should be able to find La Cava Fine Mexican Cuisine (1755 S. Eighth St., 203-4297). The new-built restaurant has made a bold move to open without any major street visibility, riding thus far off social media and word-of-mouth. It's actually attached to pain and rehab physician Miguel Castrejon's office; his wife Patricia operates La Cava (the "wine cellar").
According to executive chef Jason Lujan, Patricia has been quietly renovating and designing the space over the course of the last few years. He replied to her Craigslist posting early last week, and began work on the spot to open the following day. "She had a menu in mind from back home in Sonora, Mexico," he says, "she wrote it, but the execution is mine."
Lujan began cooking eight years ago with chef Pete Aiello at Alpine Catering before falling in with Brother Luck at Craftwood Inn. He then followed Brother on to Brother Luck Street Eats, saying "Brother is the inspiration for why I'm doing this right now ... he's given me the confidence."
Plus, Lujan says, "Mexican food is my background — I grew up in the San Luis Valley. The style is different, but the culture is the same."
Even with just a day's notice to ramp up, he sounds pleased with his opening menu, noting he'll tweak as he goes and likely offer seasonal menus with Patricia's input.
Look for tableside presentation of a Caesar salad, Tecate-battered fish tacos on cactus tortillas plus other street-style tacos, soups, salads, and main plates. "We're not doing combo platters," he says, "This is fine dining. This is not just beans and rice — you're gonna get something nice."
North end newbie
Felipe Pagan spent 35 years in food service before finally opening his own shop, called Felipe Got It (3005 N. Hancock Ave., 339-3779), located in the former North End Diner. Pagan says he started as a dishwasher at a Best Western, later making his way up to management at Perkins, Village Inn, and most recently, Chili's.
"It's something I've always wanted," he says, "and now that my kids have gotten bigger, I finally got brave enough to take the chance."
Actually, he took a chance first on a food truck with the same name, eight months ago — he still hits breweries and other sites regularly with it. But in May, he launched the sit-down eatery, which also offers delivery.
Pagan calls his menu "Mexican with an American spin," referring to small "twists" such as his Felipe Fries, which sub french fries for nachos, under steak, chicken or pork with green chile and other garnishes. He makes his own version of Tex-Mex classics from scratch, and "not to brag," he says, "but I'm pretty sure I've got one of the best green chiles in town."
Prices are notably affordable for all the plates, including breakfast burritos, tortas, tacos, tamales, and dessert empanadas.