Nothing "Special" at King Cantina

Attempts at haute cuisine take this Tex-Mex restaurant out of its league.

Want a recipe for disaster?
Take five frozen, reheated chicken "nuggets." Stick them in a bowl of mush. Toss in a handful of whole mushrooms and fibrous artichoke leaves. Cover all of the above in a bland white sauce, but remember to sprinkle some fresh chopped cilantro and green onions on top. Call it, oh, let's say, "Chicken Delmonico," for no apparent reason and, as the final touch, attach a $14 price tag.

Sound appealing? The peculiar dish is just one of several strange dinner specials available at King Cantina.

Not that everything served in this Hudson restaurant is weird. Although the kitchen plunges headlong into culinary catastrophe with its poorly conceived and executed specials, it manages to produce some reasonably good dishes when it stays within the flavor confines of its Tex-Mex-influenced standard menu.

The restaurant, situated in a strip plaza on Streetsboro Road, is attractive and comfortable, with pleasant Southwestern decor and a nice selection of burritos, fajitas, flour-tortilla pizzas, and pastas. Many of those items, sampled over the course of three visits, are good.

Consider, for instance, the restaurant's two soups, a thick roasted-corn chowder and a zesty white chili.

The creamy chowder--a blend of corn, potatoes, and carrots, delicately seasoned with cumin and cinnamon--arrived prettily topped with a swirl of chipotle-spiced sour cream. Despite the spicy-sounding garnish, the predominant flavor note arose from the corn and the cinnamon, producing a fresh, sweet taste with just the vaguest hint of pepper.

The white chili was similarly mild and fresh-tasting, with shreds of chicken and chunks of potatoes, beans, and carrots. Topped with a few slices of fresh jalapeno peppers and some chewy toasted-polenta croutons, the chili was very nice. The generous servings of both soups were "cup" sizes, but certainly would have been considered "bowls" in many other establishments.

The cantina's zippy quesadilla appetizer was also large--enough for several diners to share. A sort of tortilla sandwich, the two round flatbreads had been filled with black beans, cheddar and Monterey Jack cheeses, and sliced jalapenos. The quesadilla was then grilled, quartered, and served with lots of shredded lettuce, chopped green onions and tomatoes, and a tangy lime-and-chipotle-seasoned sour cream. While both the menu and our server cautioned that the dish was spicy, we've certainly sampled more fiery fare.

An order of stuffed banana peppers was more problematic. Amply filled with creamy cheese and tiny shrimp, then breaded and deep-fried, the four prepared-in-advance peppers were icy-cold and had to be returned to the kitchen. (The second batch arrived properly heated.) The dish was served with a little bowl of sweet cucumber-and-melon "gazpacho" that was really more like a thin salsa, and the fruity mixture added a necessary bright note to the rich but otherwise mild appetizer.

Speaking of salsa, King Cantina starts diners off with the obligatory cup of salsa and basket of tortilla chips. But the restaurant's mild red sauce, while pleasantly thick and chunky, was disconcertingly sweet. In fact, on one of our visits, a companion insisted that the salsa was nothing more than a cold version of her grandmother's sugary spaghetti sauce!

In addition to the Southwestern-influenced appetizers, we have also tried the King Burrito, with mesquite-smoked beef, black beans, cheese, and salsa; the Chorizo Burrito, with homemade sausage, beans, cheese, and sauteed peppers and onions; and the Beef Fajitas, with strips of sizzling steak, sauteed peppers and onions, guacamole, lettuce, tomatoes, cheese, sour cream, and flour tortillas. Both the King Burrito and the fajitas were quite good, although the huge Chorizo Burrito, with what must have been a pound of salty sausage and cheese, quickly became tiresome.

The Tex-Mex meals come with black beans and rice, which have varied in quality from one visit to the next. On Trip One, the rice, in a mild tomato sauce, was sweet and firm, but the black beans were flavorless. On Trip Two, both the rice and the beans were very salty. Trip Three? Both the rice and the beans were salty, but the rice had been overcooked to a mushy fare-thee-well.

But it's been the dinner specials--listed on a blackboard by the front door and recited by the servers--that have really had us cycling between laughter and tears.

Of the four specials we've ordered, the bizarre Chicken Delmonico, with its chicken tenders and tough artichoke leaves, was actually the best. Not nearly as good was an entree described by our polite but clueless server as "Garlic Sausage Crusted Roasted Salmon Cedar Plank with a side and a salad." (Yes, really.)

Here, a large salmon filet had been placed on a bed of "cheesy bacon mush" (a thick, salty, corn porridge) and topped with a bland sausage patty the size of a hamburger. At first bite, the salmon seemed a little overcooked and chewy. But that, we discovered, was the good part: The rest of the filet was nearly raw. We sent it back, and when it returned, it was dry, tasteless, and essentially inedible.

Likewise, an order of "Crab Beignets (fritters)" was peculiar in the extreme. While I generally don't argue food semantics, I have to note that, although "beignet" is indeed French for fritter, the word is generally associated with a sweet New Orleans fried bread, similar to a doughnut. Now ask yourself: How appetizing is the notion of a crab doughnut?

Call them what you will, these five deep-fried crab "beignets" were well-done on the outside but so doughy and wet inside that we could squeeze the filling out of them like toothpaste from a tube. Both the servers and the owner, Tony Polito, assured us the fritters were "supposed to be like that," yet Polito voluntarily deducted the price of that entree from our bill.

The final special was a pan-roasted sirloin steak stuffed with Gorgonzola cheese and set upon a bed of fried bacon, walnuts, and fresh thyme. The boneless steak, slit horizontally and layered with blue cheese, had been ordered rare but arrived unevenly cooked, with some parts medium-rare and other parts medium. Void of juices or beefy flavor, the meat was unpleasantly dry and tough. The walnuts, bacon, thyme, and melted Gorgonzola on the bottom of the platter mingled together into a salty, oily sauce that soon became overpowering. The dish was completed with roasted red-skinned potatoes that, in a final bold stroke of ineptitude, were undercooked and hard as rocks.

Accompanying salads--crisp, chilled romaine topped with several strips of crunchy but otherwise tasteless jicama and a mound of savory, thinly shredded Parmesan cheese--came with a cool, creamy housemade "Salsa Ranch" dressing and were delicious.

Side dishes with the specials included a choice of more "cheesy mush," fried sweet potatoes, and a platter of uninspired, unseasoned steamed broccoli, cauliflower, summer squash, and carrots that cried out for even a simple dressing of butter, salt, or lemon.

Maybe you are hoping the kitchen suddenly turned brilliant with desserts? Hah! We taste-tested two portions of flan--one with caramel sauce and whipped cream and the other with a chocolate crust, chocolate sauce, and whipped cream--on two separate visits, and the giant rectangles of incredibly dense cake were no more custard than I am Craig Claiborne. Instead, the dessert had a dry, lumpy texture, similar to frozen tofu, and an odd, almost bready, taste.

Two scoops of fried ice cream (one chocolate and one vanilla) in a sugary fried-tortilla bowl were also disappointing. Instead of being crunchy, the ice cream's coating of cornflakes, whole peanuts, cinnamon, and brown sugar was oil-logged, as if it had been fried at too low a temperature. As a result, the dish failed.

All that said, however, a huge slice of creamy banana-flavored Margarita Pie was great. The frozen, whipped filling, almost like a fluffy ice cream, mounded into a super-sweet graham-cracker crust, made soothing compensation for the gustatory ordeals we had endured.

Polito is no newcomer to the restaurant world, and he has owned other popular Akron-area dining spots, including Annabelle's and an earlier King Cantina incarnation on Highland Square. On the Saturday night when we experienced the greatest technical difficulties, he went out of his way to make things right, helping to return food to the kitchen, making deductions from our bill, and putting our desserts "on the house."

My guess is that King Cantina's problems arise not from doing too little, but from trying to do too much. Better Polito's kitchen team should stick to the basic Southwestern menu, with which they generally do well. Unfortunately, when given free rein to design and implement a list of daily specials, staffers quickly get in over their heads, producing amateurish and overpriced dishes that leave customers wishing they had stayed in familiar territory.

King Cantina.
180 West Streetsboro Road, Hudson. 330-650-2134. Lunch, Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Dinner, Monday-Saturday, 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday, 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. Carryout. Full bar. Live entertainment Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday in the lounge.

Roasted Corn Chowder (cup) $2.50
White Chicken Chili $2.50
Quesadilla $5.95
King Burrito $8.95
Chorizo Burrito $7.95
Beef Fajita $11.95
Chicken Delmonico $13.95
Pan-Roasted Stuffed Sirloin $18.95
Sausage-Crusted Salmon $14.95
Crab Beignets $16.95