The tamarind-glazed duck tacos, alone, might be enough to make S•À Cantina a destination restaurant. But there’s more to love at this new eatery in the middle of Gadsden’s beautifully revitalized downtown. Enough to already draw diners from Huntsville, Birmingham and Atlanta, and from North and South Carolina, too.
Owner Aaron Disouryavong opened S•À Cantina on Sept. 24, and he already has regulars. As a place to showcase the popular trend of street tacos, Disouryavong describes his restaurant as “artistic and vibrant.” The clean lines, original murals, open kitchen, busy bar and spacious dining room all feel fresh and modern. They are the perfect backdrop for a simple, yet varied, menu of flavorful foods made with “clean” ingredients and clever imagination.
This is not your typical Mexican restaurant. “I aim at that,” he said. “The food that I offer, I make everything in small batches and everything from scratch and in-house. I want people to understand that … and they do understand. … They love the fact of it after they try it.”
There’s no ground beef, but there is 24-hour-marinated steak. You won’t find refried beans, but you can enjoy delicious black beans (made with four simple ingredients). There’s authentic elote (Mexican street corn) and bright, fresh cilantro-lime rice.
There was a bit of a learning curve, Disouryavong said, but he trusted his audience. “I know people travel. They go to bigger cities, so … something like this they know, but they can’t picture it in Gadsden. That’s why I wanted to bring it here. … I knew Gadsden would enjoy it.”
What he’s brought is a streamlined menu that relies upon a handful of proteins and complementary sauces. The steak has a salsa picosa, the chicken has a verde sauce and the al pastor tastes nicely of pineapple. The pork belly is caramelized with an arbol chile glaze, the roasted duck has an Asian-fusion tamarind glaze. Options include chorizo and carnitas, shrimp with bang-bang slaw, mahi mahi with a chipotle sauce and roasted cauliflower with fresh avocado. All these can be made into street tacos, most into nachos and quesadillas. They are the starring ingredients in bowls, too, with black beans and that citrusy rice. There are tamales as well as a torta featuring steak and serrano crema and empanadas made with the carnitas. Appetizers and sides include delightfully messy, cheese-covered elote on the cob and fresh guacamole, salsa, cheese dip and ceviche.
Everything is made from scratch. Even the margaritas. Every single one of them. There are seven margarita options, including a spicy version (with pineapple-serrano simple syrup) and a skinny one. Each drink starts with freshly pressed juices, and each is mixed and shaken to order. Craft cocktails include a paloma, a mojito and a dark and stormy. There’s a nice selection of Jarritos, too. Customers enjoy weekday lunch specials, Taco Tuesday and a thoughtful kids’ menu.
The recipes at S•À Cantina are Disouryavong’s own. “I’m not a chef, but I love to cook,” he said. Fresh ingredients are the key, and they are prepared simply. Nothing here is frozen, and he’s working to develop relationships with local farmers.
Disouryavong put so much thought and effort into perfecting his dishes that he strongly discourages changes. In fact, special orders are not allowed (certain ingredients may be removed from a dish, but that’s not recommended either). “We don’t add anything to anything,” Disouryavong said. “We worked hard on the recipes, and we would like people to try them as it is; we think they will love it.”
The roast duck, he said, was a hard sell in the beginning. Now, it and the pork belly are among his most popular items.
Disouryavong is a big believer in the power of change and new experiences. “If you don’t change, you’re going to get left behind. I like helping other people to change and adapt to new things and new ideas.”
S•À Cantina tacos, no matter which version you choose, are simple; most have only a few ingredients – meat, onions, cilantro and sauce. “I want the meat to speak for itself.” Fillers, he said, are just not necessary.
There are probably six more Mexican restaurants within a 5-mile radius of S•À Cantina, but they are not doing what he’s doing. That has been a challenge, he admits. Everyone is used to traditional Tex-Mex. “Sometimes people walk in and realize there’s no ground beef and they turn around and leave. I’m like, ‘Just try it.’ It’s hard to change people’s minds sometimes, but I enjoy the challenge of it.”
Disouryavong worked on his restaurant concept for five years.
It’s well-thought out – from the name, to the interior design, to the dishes he’s created, to the service and flow.
Consider the name, for starters. The S stands for Sergio, an original partner in this venture; A is for Aaron. But say it out loud. “It’s a play on words,” Disouryavong said. “It’s like ese … amigo, buddy. … Most people … they asked the same question: ‘Hey, what is S•À?’ I say, ‘Say it a couple of times.’ And then they get it.”
Disouryavong, with the help of family and friends, built out the space that formerly housed Tre Ragazzi’s Italian restaurant. It took nine months. They pulled up the tile and found cool concrete to refinish. He put artistic scorch marks on dozens of pieces of pine and then built tables from them. They used reclaimed wood found by a friend to clad the walls, and then Disouryavong whitewashed them. Local artist Alayna Bennefield decorated the bar and the area around the open kitchen. Disouryavong said that pouring the 2 1/2 inches of epoxy to create the bar was one of the hardest parts. (YouTube taught him there are two kinds of epoxy; YouTube, he said, taught him a lot.)
The largest wall in the dining room features a huge, colorful calavera (skull) painted by an artist from Atlanta. The rest of the wall is intentionally empty – a blank canvas of sorts waiting for this community.
“I wanted it to be a free wall for artists,” Disouryavong said. “I want local artists to come in here and paint. Let us brainstorm some stuff and paint on it. … I want them to tag it with their name and everything … so people can see their work. That’s why I left it open. … it becomes part of the community. … I want it to be a place where people want to come to look at art … being right next to the cultural art center and everything.”
Disouryavong holds a degree in finance from the University of Alabama. An internship in Chicago opened his eyes to a lot of possibilities. He has years of hands-on restaurant experience – from back of the house to bar to marketing and social media. A lot of it has been at Mexican restaurants like Buenavista Mexican Cantina and Old Mexico Cantina (he still does work for them through his marketing company). But a place for modern Mexican food has been a dream for years.
COVID-19, of course, forced a few changes to that dream. He has organized his restaurant so, if necessary, he can run it with only three people – one in the kitchen, one at the bar and one on the floor. “I changed my operating concept of it to limit the people that I need in-house because it was hard to find employees. And being in this industry, we have to adapt to the changes that the whole world is adapting to, and this was the efficient way to do it.”
Customers order at the bar and clean up after themselves. That cuts down on staffing, too, but it also makes customers part of the process of this place. “We’re here to help you, and we’ll do anything to make your visit with us pleasurable, but, hey, if you help us, it would be nice … during this time we’re going through.”
Bussing your own table is one of the “policies” listed on the menu. Another one: “Be nice. Be kind.” Disouryavong said, “I want people to enjoy themselves when they come in and eat great food and leave everything outside. … The customer is not always right. We’re not always right either. So, let’s be respectful to each other.”
Disouryavong, who has served with Gadsden’s Chamber of Commerce, is a natural ambassador for this part of Alabama that has been his home for most of his life.
“I wanted to be in the restaurant industry for so long. I saw a need for this kind of food. More authentic, more culture-friendly, more clean food. And I wanted to bring that to Gadsden. I do have a Mex-Tex restaurant in Grant, Alabama. It was my first one. It’s Cazadores. … I knew I wanted to bring this (concept) to people. I know people like it. They go to the food trucks, to the Hispanic store, but I wanted to step it up a notch. … So they’d have a place to go with a full bar and fresh food; so they can enjoy everything that I offer.
“I am blessed enough to do this. To have my family helping me out. So, just having it is a blessing,” Disouryavong said of his new restaurant. “I want it to grow and see what it’s going to become.”
519 Broad St., Gadsden
Hours: Sunday through Thursday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Email: [email protected]