The first floor dining room and bar at Doc's Cantina. | Photo by Steve Coomes
The first floor dining room and bar at Doc’s Cantina | Photo by Steve Coomes

When Doc’s Cantina held soft openings last week, it was the second time in about five weeks an incredibly large restaurant welcomed hungry guests to Louisville’s banks on the Ohio River. Here’s an idea of how rare an occurrence this is.

Before the wraps came off River House Restaurant & Raw Bar in March, the last restaurant opened on the city’s riverfront was Tumbleweed Southwest Grill in 2005. Before that it was 1997, when Joe’s Crab Shack turned on the steamers, and the “opening” prior to that was the sale of Captain’s Quarters to the Masterson family in 1989. The only step further back I can find is when Kingfish built its Upper River Road location in, get this, 1955.

But while our fair city has been slow to add eateries along its riverfront, when it does, it goes big. When warm weather sees outside dining peak, the aforementioned spots will be able to seat between 400 and 1,000 customers at once. By comparison, most spots in our best restaurant rows can’t seat 100.

The deconstructed agave chandelier. | Photo by Steve Coomes
The deconstructed agave chandelier | Photo by Steve Coomes

Add Doc’s Cantina (1201 River Road) to the list of the muy grande restaurantes. Located in the former Tumbleweed location, which closed in late 2014, the business is a two-story, 10,000-square-foot behemoth. Its yellow, red and sky-blue painted stucco exterior is big on the eyes, too, making it equally visible from water and land. You can see it as clearly from Clarksville as Louisville.

“We wanted it to stand out,” said Brett Davis, one of four partners in Falls City Hospitality Group (FCHG), which also owns Doc Crow’s. Grinning, he added, “We kind of wanted that to carry over to the inside as well. You think it does, Steven?”

His partner, Steven Ton, returned the grin with a wry, “Yeah, I think so.”

You’d never know it, but the same designers charged with creating Doc Crow’s dark wood-dominated, urban Southern restaurant look also gave Doc’s Cantina its rainbow of colors. Inside, muted blues, greens, pinks and yellows become base colors for brightly painted wall murals of coyotes, burros, flowers and dramatically costumed senoritas with Day of the Dead painted faces. Hanging in the half-spiral stairway is a dramatic chandelier of deconstructed agave plants: illuminated pinas dangling separated from their spikey, yard-long leaves.

“Those leaves are made from melted PVC pipes that were shaped and painted,” Ton said. Clearly pleased with the artist’s work, he added, “Can you believe it? Who thought of that?”

The west-facing side of the building is a series of windows and glass doors that lead onto large decks and patios for outdoor seating. The view of the lazily moving river is hypnotic, and I had to stop myself from watching tugs push cargo up and down river and talk to my table mates. It’s a scene that makes you want to relax, eat and drink lazily, but it remains to be seen whether diners will get the option of idling too long. Despite not being a very good restaurant at all, the last tenant still stayed busy. And as good as Doc’s Cantina could become once it hits its stride, the press of crowds into the restaurant might subconsciously hasten some guests’ consumption.

The menu here is the product of executive chef Jonathan Schwartz’s longtime and casual collaboration with his Mexican wife and mother-in-law, the latter of whom is a restaurateur and chef in Cancun. Yet while Doc’s cuisine is decidedly Mexican, it’s not wedded to any of particular region of that nation or, thankfully, molded into an “Amerexcian” contrivance. Some dishes hold true to tradition while others simply reflect a dash or two of Schwartz flair. (Click here for the menu.)

The chorizo sopés ($9) leaned toward the traditional with thinner fried masa cakes than some commonly thicker versions seen stateside, but the calamari ($11) produced a more Mediterranean vibe, smoothly breaded, deep fried and amazingly tender. The same breading appeared on the chuleta ($16), better known as a pair of fried pork chops. Yet the poblano sauce and corn esquites were rustic and deliciously so. Same for the roasted chicken molé ($16), which of the multiple dishes shared at my table, was my favorite. The fried plantains and queso fresco provided sweet and salty foils for the rich and earthy molé poblano sauce.

I wish I could have had my own Tijuana Danger Dog, but it was a sharing event, and we all had to get one-sixth of this sizeable bacon-wrapped hot dog sprinkled with diced onion, pickled jalapeño, habanero aioli and crushed Doritos. According to Schwartz, the sandwich is indicative of Tijuana street food.

I’m always a fan of flan, so I had to get Doc’s horchata-sweetened version ($6). Luxuriantly smooth and lashed with a perfect caramel sauce, it was a tad sugary for my tastes, but such amped up sweetness is common to Mexican desserts. I have no doubt others will enjoy it specifically for that cloying edge. (A pairing with a taste of bourbon or a stout beer might have been ideal.)

Restaurateurs talk often about a room’s “energy,” and even when not full with customers, both floors of Doc’s Cantina have that in spades. There are no soft surfaces to soak up sound, nor walls segmenting clusters of tables to limit the travel of speech and working noise. And while it can be a little challenging to converse with guests at larger tables, you make do and remember that you came here for fun and to enjoy a crowd. The bar is loaded with premium tequila and mescal selections, for crying out loud, so what do you expect? Candle light and a wine list? Not here.

Doc’s Cantina is made for fun. So go have some. It opens to the public today, April 5.

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Steve Coomes
Steve Coomes is a restaurant veteran turned award-winning food, spirits and travel writer. In his 24-year career, he has edited and written for multiple national trade and consumer publications including Nation's Restaurant News and Southern Living. He is a feature writer for Louisville magazine, Edible Louisville & The Bluegrass and Food & Dining Magazine. The author of two books, "Country Ham: A Southern Tradition of Hogs, Salt & Smoke," and the "Home Distiller's Guide to Spirits," he also serves as a ghostwriter for multiple clients.