Cantina Loca Emphasizes the Heart and Soul of Chef Dana Rodriguez

On Wednesday, January 12, Cantina Loca opened in the recently-minted Airbnb-adjacent proto-hotel, the Espadin LoHi. Helmed by chef Dana Rodriguez — the James Beard semi-finalist with a growing list of accolades magnificent enough to dwarf even her phenomenal restaurants Work and Class and Super Mega Bien — the Mexico City-style restaurant serves all the usual suspects of the culinary megalopolis, all done to the chef’s exacting yet still playful standards. Brightly-tinted aguachiles, queso fundido and tacos are all presented with panache. Never one to sit still for long, Rodriguez recently announced that she will be revamping the kitchen at Casa Bonita, a collaboration she’s kicking of with South Park writers Trey Parker and Matt Stone.

While Rodriguez’s utterly incandescent food could easily shine in the dreariest of abodes, Cantina Loca is richly ornamented, befitting its position in what may be the most artfully-curated, short-term-stay venue in the entire city. The Espadin bills itself as a “vacation rental experience,” boasting over 40 individually-fashioned, loft-style rooms designed to be far homier than plenty of hospitality’s more boutique options. Laura Goodson paintings hang above some of the beds, with in-room Pelotons and designated work areas aligning the place closer towards a digital nomad Shangri-la fit for the pandemic era. That Cantina Loca has a mural from John Rumtum and an organic-seeming lavender tree sculpture jutting through the center, it would almost seem injudicious were the decor to be anything else.

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Cantina Loca is a cool place to drink tequila. And while the list of spirits is a remarkable accomplishment in its own right, the coolest tequila to drink in the place is Rodriguez’s recently released set of Doña Loca varieties — a blanco, reposado and anejo that just joined her already marvelous line of mezcals. Both the food and drink are chock-full of the chef’s contagious ebullience, naturally reflecting a woman who can juggle a full ensemble of tremendous projects without appearing to break a sweat. At the center of all are the tacos, with the juicy barbacoa ($4.50) perhaps being the most iconic.

The bar program — left to the clearly capable hands of Nicole Rezner — harmonizes perfectly with both the food and atmosphere. The cocktails are visibly sophisticated, though clearly built more for mutually-held joy than any kind of self-congratulation. The Vincent Man-Gogh ($14) — with tequila, mango, red chili and lime — is a prime example, an utterly lush concoction that may bring misty eyes to anyone who grew up munching Vero. The Higo Borracho ($14) — with fig-infused sotol, amaro, house-made grapefruit liqueur and bitters — is more robust, though equally giddy.

There’s no arguing that Rodriguez is a force. Cantina Loca does a good job of collecting her varied successes in one decidedly potent stop.

Cantina Loca is located at 2890 Zuni St., Denver. It is open Tuesday – Thursday and Sunday from 4-10 p.m., and Friday and Saturday from 4-11 p.m.

All photos courtesy of Hi-Rez Photography.