It’s no accident that Jason Smith is among a handful of local chef-proprietors who have fashioned a successful multi-concept restaurant consortium. Since opening his flagship bistro 18 Seaboard in downtown Raleigh in 2006 and, most recently, his second Cantina 18 location, Smith’s genuine warmth and upbeat nature have earned him respect from virtually everyone he’s met.
If you’ve ever dined at 18 Seaboard, chances are good that Smith has visited your table and greeted you with an enthusiastic smile. He refers to these interactions as the table touch.
“Ensuring that people are happy and having a good time is important to me,” he said. “I like to look each guest in the eye and thank them for choosing to dine with us. Engaging with others is my favorite part of my job.”
No doubt Smith’s dedication to doing business the right way has allowed him to find quality people to continue expanding the 18 Restaurant Group portfolio, which also includes the original Cantina 18 in Raleigh’s Cameron Village and Harvest 18 in Durham. One such individual is chef Miguel Gonzalez, a native of Mexico, who oversees the kitchen at Cantina 18 in Morrisville.
“Chef Miguel has been with us for a long time, and he brings the level of passion and experience that is needed in all our restaurants,” Smith said.
Folks in the Western Wake area have come to appreciate Cantina 18’s fresh Southwest cuisine served in a relaxed, full-service environment.
The restaurant pushes the boundaries of traditional Tex-Mex, offering creative menu selections like the popular grilled chicken tacos containing Granny Smith apples, cranberries and goat cheese. Never mind the spicy braised short rib quesadilla drizzled with avocado puree; it’s simultaneously audacious and delicious.
“We want it to be fun and funky but also really approachable,” Smith said.
Even the appetizers are inspired. Consider the must-order goat cheese guacamole with pickled jalapenos, cilantro, tomatoes and black beans. Or the piquant queso fundido with chorizo and grapefruit-pineapple salsa.
Those who prefer more straightforward fare will find fajitas, burritos and tacos on the menu, all of which are abundantly flavorful and crafted with precision. In the mood for a salad? Create your own bowl with mixed greens, romaine or spinach, plus copious vegetables and protein options ranging from tinga chicken to salmon.
“We use fresh, locally sourced ingredients, and we’re good at being nimble,” Smith said. “We also have a large vegetarian contingent that has embraced us, because we can offer them so many different options.”
Look no further than the red-pepper-and pumpkin-seed-infused chickpea masala, or the crowd-pleasing black bean and avocado nachos comingled with cherry tomatoes, corn and pepper-jack cheese.
A prominently displayed mural showcases Cantina 18’s various North Carolina suppliers. Among these are Moore Brothers Beef, Wanchese Fish Company, Heritage Farms Cheshire Pork, Carolina Classics Catfish, Sunburst Trout Farms and Pamlico Packing Co.
“We have great relationships with all our purveyors, and they consistently provide the highest quality products we can find,” said Smith.
Over the 16 months that Cantina 18 in Morrisville has been open, business has steadily increased.
“At the beginning, things were a bit rocky, and there were some growing pains when we increased from owning three to now four restaurants,” Smith said. “It took some time for us to get settled and develop a following, but we’re really pleased with how the people of Cary and Morrisville have embraced us. We love having a presence in this market.”
An appealing weekend brunch has steadily drawn regulars. When you visit, order the standout shrimp and eggs Benedict with habañero hollandaise sauce, an overstuffed breakfast burrito or the agave nectar French toast.
As for beverages, slake your thirst with a reliable craft beer, margarita, sangria or mimosa. Drink specials are available daily.
“We have nine beers on draft that rotate, including a lot of local brews,” Smith said.
Whether you go to Cantina 18 for brunch, at lunchtime or for dinner, the waitstaff is friendly, attentive and eager to recommend food items for you to contemplate.
An airy dining room features a cement floor, high ceilings with exposed ductwork and white brick walls. A nifty bank of movable glass doors and windows allows for easy access to an outdoor patio.
“It creates a great sense of openness and a laid-back vibe since you can sit inside and feel the air coming in from outside,” said Smith.
3305 Village Market Place
(Park West Village), Morrisville
Cantina 18 is open seven days a week. Reservations are accepted online or by phone. Follow the restaurant on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to see the latest photos and specials.