On a Saturday night, the wait for a table at Canyon Southwest Cafe was nearly 90 minutes. Most South Florida restaurants would envy that kind of popularity during the deadly doldrums of summer. But it’s even more of an accomplishment when you consider that Canyon will be turning 19 at its next anniversary Dec. 17.
What’s more impressive is that the Fort Lauderdale restaurant maintains this kind of loyalty without making concessions. Don’t even think about making a reservation. The website adamantly states: “No reservations. No way. ... Forget about it.” The place closes nightly “at our discretion.” Mario Di Leo, who owns the restaurant with executive chef Chris Wilber, says the reservation policy, the food and the atmosphere are not for everyone.
But Canyon doesn’t have to be for everyone. Unlike its name, Canyon is not a large space. The cafe seats 70, including 10 spots at the small bar. Quarters are tight when it’s packed, but the lively vibe comes from conversations, not high-decibel music. Large comfy booths draped with sheer curtains pulled to the side, dim lighting and candlelight allow diners some intimacy. Once you are seated, servers will bring you warm bread and you’ll be ready for one of Canyon’s killer prickly pear margaritas, made from the cactus. Food is made to order, so don’t be in a rush.
While the restaurant is known for its creative Southwest fusion cuisine, the menu also visits Europe and Asia for some of its spices and the coast for its fish and seafood.
Canyon’s starters outnumber entrees, so we love sharing a bunch of appetizers at the start.
One of our favorites is barbecue shrimp tostada. The light, crisp tortillas are loaded with flavorful shrimp and a scattering of roasted corn, drizzled with melted manchego and cilantro crema. You’ll find a similar, toned-down version at Canyon’s new Agave Mexican Fusion, a casual, counter-service venue at Deerfield Beach (see Staying In).
Savor the crunch of a blue cornmeal shell before diving into its treasure — a succulent oyster. You get six, served with pico de gallo brightened by a chile vinaigrette, served julienne-style in a colorful presentation with a nice swirl of cilantro cream. Ubiquitous mac ‘n cheese is on the menu and the 20somethings at our table couldn’t resist (my mom would think I was daffy spending $10 for a bowl). It’s delicious, ultra creamy — tossed with manchego, jalapeños and Serrano chiles to give it a little spice and topped off with a dusting of panko (you can pay extra and add lobster).
We weren’t as excited about the Thai chile-honey dressing on the fried calamari, which we thought a bit sweet.
Wilber toasts nori to give his gingery vinaigrette a sea-salty seaweed kick in a salsa of sliced Asian pears and cucumbers. It’s the finishing touch on an entree of seared tuna, served atop wasabi boniato mash.
Fresh black Florida grouper is supple and juicy, getting a flavor boost from a marinade of Southwest spices without overwhelming the mild fish. It’s plated with dollops of jumbo lump crab and Serrano ham, served with buttered haricot vert instead of a starch.
One of Canyon’s most popular entrees is an intriguing pairing of three large scallops, which are seared to a perfect golden brown, and pork risotto, the meat braised in a spicy marinade.
Filet mignon is what it should be — terrifically tender and juicy, getting a boost from a luxurious topping of goat cheese mixed with Parmesan. Making it more interesting, the chef folds a pesto of roasted poblanos, pistachios and cilantro into the goat cheese.
On the more casual side, quesadillas are elevated in a special, with a shot of basil vinaigrette adding bite to a filling of green chili-braised short ribs.
Canyon offers decadent housemade desserts, including housemade ice creams. White chocolate bread pudding is fantastic, served with a berry Chambord pan sauce, or go for flourless chocolate cake served with peanut butter ice cream.
It’s reassuring to find that Canyon is still a place where you’ll discover fun new dishes along with good times.