It was 4 p.m. My husband Phil and I put on our Sunday best and headed to church. When we arrived, the parking on the hill was a bit limited, but we secured a spot. We had been looking forward to this all week.
But here was the thing— our good clothes were for a date night. We don’t follow an organized religion, unless there’s one for foodies we haven’t heard of yet. The destination was La Cabanita: a Mexican restaurant that’s now doing business in a renovated church.
The new version of La Cabanita can be found at 763 Main St. in the Arlington area of Poughkeepsie, nearby Vassar College. La Cabanita specializes in the cuisine of Oaxaca, part of Mexico’s coastal region. Known for its mole sauces, corn based offerings and seafood dishes, their menu is far superior to anything from Taco Bell.
The original restaurant, which opened in 2003, was a few doors down, and much, much smaller. One would think that a restaurant in a church wouldn’t work. But it’s been done before in our area, with Terrapin in Rhinebeck. Now La Cabanita occupies the old St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church which was constructed in the 1930s. After the growing congregation moved, the church stood empty for several years until a Spanish restaurant undertook a renovation, opening for business in the early 2000’s. Around 2012, the space was empty once again, until January 2019, when La Cabanita took over.
If you’d eaten at the prior restaurant, as I had, the newest incarnation was a considerable upgrade. The walls were a soft, candlelit white, a perfect backdrop for colorful paintings and decorations. Arched windows were refurbished, letting in streams of lovely daylight. Improved acoustics enabled couples, families and larger groups to talk amongst themselves without shouting, all while having traditional and popular Hispanic tunes play low. In the previous eatery, this type of conversation wouldn’t have been possible over the dim light and too-loud music. All of these changes made for a simple, yet lovely ambiance.
The centerpiece of the restaurant, had to be the bar, having taken over the space where the altar once stood. It was wonderfully appointed and had parts of the old church hanging on the wall above. Like a shepherd tending to his flock, the bartender mixed luscious cocktails while entertaining devotees of mezcal and other tasty libations.
The vibe was definitely casual, not at all a sacred or church-y space. A combination of booths, tables and window seats offered both intimate space and room for larger parties of diners. During our visit, there were two big groups of 12 and 16 patrons, which included babies and young children. All were made to feel welcome by the staff.
Phil and I sat in a booth. We were impressed with the variety and thoughtfulness of the reasonably priced menu. Vegetarians, carnivores and seafood lovers all had multiple entrees to choose from. In addition, families couldn’t go wrong with the children’s menu where every option was only $5. Our server, Luis, was a professional, knowledgeable and attentive young man. He answered any question and readily suggested accompaniments.
After we ordered our food, Luis brought us freshly made tortilla chips with two salsas, a zesty green and a red, spicy one. The chips were warm, crispy and had just a hint of salt. The green salsa was super-creamy with a delicate hint of cilantro. The salsa was more like a sauce, with a great smokiness and a medium to high heat level.
Next came our cocktails. The bartender had mixed Phil’s mojito with fresh mint we’d seen displayed on the bar, and the flavor was light and refreshing. My red sangria was poured to perfection.
For the appetizer, we picked the Empanadas de Camaron. The chef prepared it in open, fried tortilla shells; the three savory treats were filled with tender shrimp, pico de gallo, avocado and a smoky sauce. The flavors were mouth-watering. Each was a little smaller than a store-bought taco shell and we could have easily eaten ten of them. But Phil and I needed to save room for our entrees.
My husband ordered the Estofado. The menu described it like this: “One of seven native moles in Oaxaca made primarily with almonds, raisins, pickled jalapenos and spices, served with chicken and rice.” It looked unassuming, but oh my goodness, the mole was thick, and complex in taste. Similar to a rich, brown gravy, the sauce was smooth and tangy, with a strong hit of cumin and black pepper. The chicken was fall-off-the bone tender. Phil would have licked the plate clean. Instead, he used fresh, charred tortillas to sop up the liquid gold.
I ordered the Camarones al gusto, a shrimp dish that I have revisited in my thoughts almost daily since then. With three sauce choices including diablo (very spicy), al ajo (garlic), and smoky chipotle; I chose the latter. The chef prepares it with a side of flavorful rice, a roasted melange of vegetables including zucchini and onions, and the centerpiece, the generous portion of ten, tasty shrimp doused with a pinkish, creamy, smoky, spicy sauce that would make a piece of cardboard palatable. Again, thank goodness for those tortillas, because none of that sauce was staying behind.
For dessert, we decided on Mexican coffees and tres leches mocha cake. Our first disappointment of the visit came when we were told they were out of the coffee. The cake was beautifully presented with whipped cream and a fresh strawberry, but its flavor was a little bland and texture a bit mushier than we were used to. We were so pleased with everything else that this didn’t really matter.
A memorable meal doesn’t need to be expensive. With starters ranging from $6 for tableside-prepared guacamole to $22 for a substantial platter of Oaxacan appetizers and entrees ranging from $12 to $18, the menu was well-priced for the quality of our meals. With more dishes to taste, exceptional service and a welcoming atmosphere, La Cabanita is a restaurant we look forward to visiting again and again. Hopefully, others will consider this little gem when they want a meal and experience to remember.
La Cabanita is located at 763 Main St. Poughkeepsie, about 30 minutes from campus. Check out their menu at www.lacabanita1.com. 845-452-7544. Closed Tuesdays.