Review: Disney’s La Cantina and La Hacienda de San Angel offer stunning Epcot lagoon views with authentic but average Mexican food

in Disney, Theme Parks, Walt Disney World

La Cantina de San Angel, the renovated outdoor patio area at Epcot’s Mexico pavilion, reopened on the evening of Sept. 15, 2010, paired with the grand opening of the new attached indoor table service Mexican restaurant, La Hacienda de San Angel. The new pair of eateries sit side-by-side alongside the World Showcase Lagoon and each offer a similar array of tacos, tostadas, and other standard Mexican fare revised in an attempt to showcase authentic Mexican flavors over the “Tex-Mex” style many Americans have become accustomed to.

My thoughts on the new restaurants are split, as the food is good (not great) but the views and decor are wonderful. Before I elaborate, take a video tour of both La Cantina and La Hacienda de San Angel and hear a bit more about each from San Angel LLC president and CEO Rick Debler and Epcot vice president Dan Cockerell:

On with the review…

The Location, Decor and View

Epcot’s Mexico pavilion has always enjoyed a prime spot along the World Showcase, as the first country guests encounter when circling the promenade clockwise. While most guests’ eyes are immediately drawn to the large, indoor pyramid-shaped portion of the pavilion, the new La Cantina and La Hacienda de San Angel restaurants actually sit on the opposite side of the path, along the World Showcase Lagoon:

La Hacienda de San Angel

La Hacienda, the indoor table service restaurant, is located on the left half of the newly-constructed building while La Cantina, the outdoor counter service restaurant, is placed on the right half, with plenty of covered outdoor seating available:

La Cantina de San Angel outdoor seating

La Cantina de San Angel outdoor eating

The outdoor seating of La Cantina literally sits on the World Showcase Lagoon:

La Cantina de San Angel outdoor seating

This new 150-seat area is now one of very few spots around the World Showcase offering guests a chance to sit in shaded comfort while enjoying the views across the lagoon, which are especially breathtaking at sunset:

Sunset over World Showcase Lagoon from La Cantina and La Cantina de San Angel

Guests managing to get a spot along the outermost railing at night will have a chance to witness the nightly “Illuminations: Reflections of Earth” fireworks show from a fantastic, unobstructed spot. But great fireworks-viewing spots like this don’t come easy, as guests often take their positions well in advance of the show’s beginning. I wondered if the area will be reserved only for those dining at La Cantina or if it will be open to all Epcot guests. Epcot VP Dan Cockerell told me, “We’re going to figure that out, because we think this is going to become now the most popular place at Epcot and so we’re going to have to work with our team to see how we manage that and make sure we keep it a really good guest experience.”

Inside La Hacienda de San Angel, large windows give patrons a similar view of the World Showcase Lagoon, but in air conditioned comfort:
La Hacienda de San Angel dining area

La Hacienda de San Angel dining area

However, only those guests with seats near the window will be able to enjoy the Illuminations fireworks show from within La Hacienda, making La Cantina a much more desirable fireworks viewing location. But fireworks aside, La Hacienda’s design still offers plenty of enjoyment with casual home feel. It’s a large indoor space featuring 250 seats, but it still feels intimate, as areas are divided up into separate rooms, each with its own unique lighting fixtures. Disney describes it as if guests are visiting the “old-world, countryside house of their gracious Mexican hosts,” which sums it up nicely:

La Hacienda de San Angel dining area

La Hacienda de San Angel dining area

La Hacienda de San Angel dining area

As a comfortable place to casually relax and dine, neither La Cantina nor La Hacienda de San Angel will disappoint.

The Food and Drinks

Compared to the prime location, casual decor, and unique panoramic views, the food served at La Cantina and La Hacienda de San Angel is not quite as spectacular. The offerings are not bad and are a great twist on what most people are used to eating as “Mexican food” around the United States. In general, the food served at these locations is far less heavy and less greasy than your average taco joint. But with all the talk of research trips taken to Mexico to bring back authentic recipes, I was not overly impressed by any one particular dish.

The menus at La Cantina and La Hacienda are quite similar in flavors, though the quick service side offers fewer options than the indoor, table service has available. At La Cantina, there are five options: tacos de carne (beef), tacos de pollo (chicken), empanadas de queso (cheese), nachos, and guacamole con totopos (tortilla chips), ranging in price from $7.25 to $11.95. Most of these are also available at La Hacienda along with a larger array of tostadas, soups, salads, and other heartier plates.

Of what I sampled from the menus, my favorite was the taco de carne:

Taco de Carne at La Cantina de San Angel

It’s not your standard ground beef taco. The combination of shredded beef, homemade tortillas, and a fresh crunchy scallion across the top creates a crisp flavor that doesn’t weigh you down. While it is flavorful, it lacked any sort of kick that I come to expect from a taco and left me wanting more – in a good way. That is, I ended up eating four of them throughout the grand opening night.

I did find that kick I was looking for, but in an unexpected spot: the cheese empanada. A slightly crunchy fried dough surrounds the uniquely spicy cheese inside:

La Cantina de San Angel empanadas de queso

While I did enjoy the flavor of the empanada, as a whole it was unfulfilling as I tasted more air inside than cheese. I wouldn’t be happy paying $10.50 for a plate of them at La Cantina, but would definitely recommend trying the Botana starter in La Hacienda, that offers a sample of the empanada along with a chicken tostada and Chilorio sope (marinated pork):

Chicken tostada at La Hacienda de San Angel

Chilorio sope at La Hacienda de San Angel

Both the tostada and sope featured a mix of flavors, but not one in particular stood out on either. The chicken tostada tastes mostly of the black bean mole that tops it, leaving the chicken underneath as an afterthought. Likewise the marinated pork on the sope was not the star of the dish, but rather the overpowering corn flavor of the tortilla it rests on. Neither completely worked for me.

Other dishes available at La Hacienda include chiles toreados y chorizitos (peppers and pork sausage) and tacos de camarones (shrimp), but I didn’t try either last night:

Chiles toreados y chorizitos at La Hacienda de San Angel

Taco de Camarones (shrimp) at La Hacienda de San Angel

All in all, the food served at La Cantina and La Hacienda de San Angel doesn’t come across as heavy as some Mexican food does, but therein may lie its downfall. When I’m in the mood for a Mexican meal, I expect bold flavors with plenty of herbs and spices, and I found little of that at the new restaurants.

But there is certainly plenty of bold flavor to be found in the “premium” margaritas served at La Hacienda:

La Cantina de San Angel orange mango fire margarita

Margaritas at La Hacienda de San Angel

I’m not a drinker, but I wanted to sample what was being served – not a wise decision. Beginning with the strongly-flavored salt around the rim of the glasses and ending with the bizarrely-flavored drinks, I am not a fan of any of La Hacienda’s margaritas. I’m not saying they won’t appeal to those who enjoy this type of drink, but as someone who only has a alcoholic beverage on special occasions, these were far to heavy for me.

The Orange Mango Fire margarita features tequila, ginger liqueur, orange juice, mango, lime juice, Tabasco sauce, and a ruin-your-taste-buds Tajin chili powder rim. I couldn’t get the flavor of that chili powder out of my mouth for the rest of the night. I also tried the Rosita margarita, which includes rose syrup and hibiscus salt on the rim and tasted exactly like you might imagine, as if you’re drinking a flower. Another miss for me. The classic margarita with agave nectar syrupt and a catcus-lemongrass salt rim was the least inventive of the bunch (hence the name) but also packs the strongest alcohol flavor. I didn’t go beyond a single sip. Call me a lightweight, but I had to drive home afterward. Fortunately, these drinks are priced at $12.50 or $13.00 each, which will likely prevent any one individual from overindulging.

I did find some unexpected entertainment from the bartenders serving at the La Cantina grand opening party, as one insisted on showing me (and my camera) a certain creepy-crawly:

Scorpion for La Cantina de San Angel drinks

It made for a great photo, but scared me off of the drinks for the rest of the night.

Wrapping It Up

If you’re looking for somewhere to comfortably sit by the waterside around the World Showcase at Epcot, La Cantina de San Angel is the new place to be. And if you happen to be hungry while you’re there, sharing a plate of tacos or empanadas with a few friends should be an enjoyable experience. But don’t expect to show up at the attached La Hacienda de San Angel and grab an air conditioned seat. Open only for dinner service, a reservation is needed to get inside for a meal. And with entrees at La Hacienda ranging from $22.95 to $25.95, you won’t walk out without a big bill. But it might be worth it if you manage to nab a seat by the window to enjoy a nearly private showing of Illuminations at night. Just don’t expect the food to come with as much excitement as the fireworks and restaurant itself.

La Hacienda de San Angel entrance with cast member

Tune in to Show 285 of the Inside the Magic podcast to hear more about La Cantina and La Hacienda de San Angel from Epcot VP Dan Cockerell and San Angel LLC president and CEO Rick Debler, available as of Sunday, Sept. 19 from our Podcasts page and on iTunes.

More photos from La Cantina and La Hacienda de San Angel grand opening:

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