SEACREST — La Cocina Mexican Grill and Bar celebrates Cinco de Mayo this weekend with its third annual block party.
“The biggest day of the restaurant is probably the most relaxed day of the restaurant,” said Executive Chef Ben Lillard, who has crafted specialty dishes for the occasion. “There was a wait from open to close last year, but we just went with it. You know you are going to be busy, but everyone’s having a good time.”
La Cocina hosts a block party from 2-7 p.m. Sunday with a DJ, face painting and family-friendly games in the courtyard. The Sunday fiesta also will feature food and drink specials from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. at the restaurant, 10343 E. County 30A.
“We will have a big jumpy house with slides, a four-in-one,” said Nancy Norris, director of operations for Hartley Restaurant Group. “It will be the same DJ we used last year, and dance contests. Last year, he had them line dancing. We will have three face painters because we had a line last year from open to close.”
Admission to the block party is free and open to the public, but reservations for lunch and dinner will not be accepted for the event.
“It’s crazy how many people celebrate Cinco de Mayo,” Norris said. “The road will be blocked off.”
The annual event again is expected to fill the restaurant, which seats 140 inside and another 80 out — “everyone’s favorite place to sit,” Norris added.
Mexican flags and café lights adorn the outside alleyway area of the restaurant, with seating at café tables with red umbrellas. The inside of the restaurant has been furnished and decorated with items from owner Ann Hartley’s trip to San Miguel, Mexico.
Though La Cocina usually closes from 3 to 5 p.m. daily, the doors and the kitchen will stay open all day Sunday for the celebration.
Lillard’s special menu includes grilled Fried Soft Shell Crab Quesadillas with queso fresca and lime remoulade, Fried Lobster Taco featuring a 5-ounce lobster tail in a homemade corn tortilla served with coleslaw, queso fresca, chipotle lime buerre blanco dipping sauce, and Mexico City potato fritters; and for dessert — Fried Cheesecake.
“All of the specials on Cinco de Mayo will be served on homemade tortillas,” Lillard added.
Food and drink specials on margaritas and Mexican-imported beers, also will also be offered at the restaurant on Monday during lunch, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and dinner, 5-9 p.m.
“We also will be serving Justin Timberlake’s new tequila, Sauza 901,” Norris added.
La Cocina Menu
La Cocina’s full menu also will be available to order from during the Cinco de Mayo celebration.
“For being a Mexican restaurant, the menu is very diverse,” said Lillard, 33, who was the sous chef at George’s at Alys Beach for three years before moving to La Cocina two years ago.
He recalls owners George and Ann Hartley’s search to satisfy their Tex-Mex cravings when he came on board at the Mexican restaurant.
“The owner handed me a stack of Mexican food cookbooks and said start studying,” said Lillard, who also was sent to L.A. for a food festival. “I found out I didn’t like California Mexican food.”
At first, coming up with recipes sometimes involved taste tests at the Hartleys.
“When she didn’t like something, I felt like I was on ‘Chopped,’” he said with a laugh.
He changed the house sauce to a chili con carne, one of George’s favorites. Other Hartley staples also have been added to the menu. George’s daily cravings of thin, crispy tortilla chips with creamy, salty melted queso blanco with ground beef, red onions and jalapenos, eventually found a permanent home under the appetizers — La Bamba Queso Dip.
“George’s Especial — that’s what I ate every night for three years, so we finally decided to put it on the menu,” said Hartley, who also added he really likes the “tacos and enchildadas.”
George’s Especial on the dinner menu is a grilled flat iron steak with yucca fries.
Thepopular Botanas Trio features overnight roasted brisket wonton tacos; a fried avocado stuffed with beef, nuts and fruit; and a goat cheese and bean quesadilla. The fried avocado with creamy sriracha aioli were inspired by a fried avocado Ann had eaten in Austin, Texas.
“I took chili relleno filling and mixed it with avocado and breaded and deep fried avocado cakes,” Lillard said. “It’s different — don’t see these anywhere.”
The platter’s tacos are filled with jalapeno coleslaw over slow-roasted brisket. The taco initially was served for the restaurant’s first wine and tequila dinner, where it was a big hit.
“We put the brisket in right before we go on low, and get it in the oven starts going every day,” Lillard said.
The menu also includes Barbacoa brisket tacos, which I have not eaten since living in Texas more than 10 years ago.
Lillard, who has been cooking since he was 15, usually tries “to keep on the healthier side,” but acknowledges most customers going out for Mexican food aren’t counting calories.
“We are up to four or five salads,” Lillard said. “By keeping it diverse, there’s something for everybody.”
The kale and avocado salad with shrimp (or chicken) is an amazing combination that also happens to be healthy. “I was bored one day when I came up with the kale and avocado salad,” Lillard admitted.
The combination of pepitas, jicama, carrot, raisins, red onion and fresh lemon juice has a variety of textures and fresh flavors.
“Some customers look at the menu and ask for dressing on the side, but there is no dressing,” said Lillard, who muddles fresh lemon juice and avocado together then spreads it on the kale. “I think the best flavor in that salad is the raisin and kale combination.”
For a sweet and savory mix, try the mole sauce — made in a four-gallon batch with a pound of chocolate — served on a shredded chicken enchilada. If you want something a little sweeter, homemade desserts include the Apple Pie Empanada topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
Lillard admits he has been guilty of “food profiling.”
“I always try to picture the customer in my head when someone orders in the back, but I’m usually wrong,” he said. “I will come out with a bowl of soup, steak and salad, and the soup is for the kid, the salad is for dad and mom is getting a steak.”
If you are concerned about drinking too many calories, the bar has a list of Skinny Drinks, included the Skinny Margarita — a combination of sauza silver tequila, sugar free triple sec, agave nectar and fresh squeezed lime juice served on the rocks for 112 calories.
“The house margarita is probably 80 percent of our bar sales,” George said.
Lillard added, “As fresh as we are with our food, the same is true for our drinks. We hand squeeze all juice in an industrial strength juicer for the bar. We make straight pineapple puree. We puree a whole pineapple fresh.”
The puree is used in the Pineapple Margarita signature drink and the skinny Dreamsicle (156 calories).
CHULAS’ CINCO DE MAYO EVENTS AND SPECIALS: Chulas by Rita on 15th Street will host live entertainment with David on classical and flamenco guitar beginning at 6 p.m. Friday. Friday and Saturday specials include all-you-can-eat tacos, buy one get one half-price margaritas and other specials in-house, ranging from traditional Mexican to Caribbean. Chulas will be closed Sunday, but will open from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday, five hours later than usual, with food and drink specials.
LOS ANTOJITOS: Celebrate with Los Antojitos on U.S. 98 during its final Cinco de Mayo at the current location, where it will remain until March 2015. Fans of the Tex-Mex restaurant will then be able to get their favorites at the new restaurant, which will be built on Beck Avenue with an outside patio and dining area and bar overlooking Lake Ware.
Bridge Span 14, aka Palmo Puente 14, has put a temporary Mexican spin on the menu at its organic restaurant at 105 Carillon Market St. in Carillon Beach. Through Monday, guests can order selections from the Cinco de Mayo menu, which features seven entrees, such as Carne Asada with grilled marinated Joyce Farms Skirt Steak on a bed of greens served with fresh tortillas and guacamole, fiesta rice, black beans and salsa.
For more Dining options, visit the Dining tab at PanamaCity.com.
Barberitos: 836 W. 23rd St., Panama City; 481-8017
Bodega Mateo: 22416 Panama City Beach Parkway, Panama CityBeach; 896-3814
Bud & Alley’s Taco Bar: 2236 E. County Road 30A, Seaside; 231-4781
Chulas by Rita:750 W. 15th St., Panama City; 215-7482
Diego’s Burrito Factory & Margarita Bar: 15514 Front Beach Road, Panama City Beach; 249-7373
El Jalisco: 766 W. 23rd St., Panama City; 481-0909
El Paisa:1900 W. 15th St., Panama City; 215-5771
GuadalajaraMexican Grill: 8730 Thomas Drive, Panama City Beach; 235-3300
La Cocina Mexican Grill & Bar: 10343 E. County 30A, Seacrest; 231-4021
La Fuente Bakery: 2909 W. U.S. 98, Panama City; 784-9224
Los Antojitos: 4809 W. U.S. 98, Panama City; 784-6633
Los Rancheros:527 R. Jackson Blvd., Panama City Beach (249-5195); 208 W. 23rd St., Panama City; 769-7999
Maddie’s La Casita: 561 Harrison Ave., Panama City; 784-6817
Marina Cantina: 5550 N. Lagoon Drive, Panama CityBeach; 249-5500
Moe’s Southwest Grill: 1000 E. 23rd St., Panama City; 522-8606
Old Mexico: 430 S. Tyndall Parkway, Panama City(872-9006); 1812 State 77, Lynn Haven (271-1066)
Pepper’s Mexican Grill & Cantina:2061 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., Panama City; 785-2227
Taco Bell:434 S. Tyndall Pkwy, Panama City (784-3008); 4020 W. 23rd St., Panama City (763-1555); 2005 State 77, Lynn Haven (271-5877); 7040 U.S. 98, Panama City Beach (233-8480); 17120 Panama City Beach Parkway, Panama City Beach (236-8233)
Taco Casa: 663 W. 23rd St., Panama City; 784-7776