Hot LavaJul 31, 2017 ● By Amy Richmond
Despite arriving early on a Saturday night, a line had already formed out the door with a one-hour wait, yet no one seemed deterred. The hostess happily offered to text us when our table was ready, so we were free to roam and explore. Nebraska Furniture Mart of Texas was well within range, but we chose to sneak peeks at what awaited us at the restaurant.
In the lobby, a two-story rustic guitar made from Hurricane Katrina debris stole the show. The place hummed with energy while still feeling casual and relaxed. The hostess and wait staff sported bandanas and sweet southern smiles, which contributed to the down-home feel. Corrugated metal and refined wood framed the walls, with brick accents highlighting the well-lit collection of spirits at the bar and the elevator to the coveted balcony.
Chain-link fencing draped from the ceiling and wire-bottom planters over booths in the bar sprouted musical paraphernalia and down-lighting. Behind the bar, a metal garage door highlighted the Lava Cantina logo and hid a smaller stage for more intimate concerts, while exposed metal columns and air ducts seemed surprisingly sophisticated. On the west wall, a gleaming white kitchen was framed with massive paned windows.
On the south wall, neatly tucked behind a green brocade and a sliding barn door that would make Chip and Joanna Gaines of “Fixer Upper” proud, an oasis waited for the chosen few -- members of the live band on tap that night. The green room is reported to be one of the many reasons bands yearn to come back to Lava Cantina. My curiosity was piqued, but I had to let my imagination fill in the blanks as tales of pool tables, lounge chairs, televisions, personal restrooms, showers and a washer and dryer were described.
Speaking of televisions, the dining area and bar were filled with them, but unlike other restaurants where they serve as distractions, these televisions unexpectedly added to the ambiance. With music videos tailored to match the genre of the band on schedule for that night, the screens added to the excitement of the concert to come. And, unknown to most guests, music videos can be requested.
If you intend to visit Lava Cantina for dinner and a concert, be sure to plan well in advance. Reservations are not taken for dining, but tickets for the adjoining concert area go quickly. Typically, free tickets are reserved on a first-come, first-serve basis via lavacantina.com for two general admission areas -- the floor in front of the stage and the second-floor balcony behind the VIP balcony. However, depending on the band playing, charges for these areas may occur. Tickets for the coveted VIP patio and covered balcony can range from $10-$135 and sell out fast. Capacity is officially 1,800, but they cap sales at 1,600 to ensure guests still feel like VIPs.
On this night, a Journey cover band called “Infinite Journey” was scheduled for 9 p.m., with doors opening at 7 p.m. Arrive early for dinner if you plan to vie for first-come, first-serve concert seating.
As we were ushered to our booth in the main dining area, 1980s music videos played to complement the pending Infinite Journey concert. From that point on, our entire dining experience was punctuated by elated retorts from my husband as he re-lived his childhood through music.
Originally started in Louisiana by a father and son duo, Steve and Ian Vaughn, Lava Cantina’s cuisine is described as “Creole Food with a Mexican Twist.” As the story goes, their first landlord insisted on having a Mexican restaurant. So, staying true to their southern Louisiana heritage, they concocted a fusion of Creole and Mexican cuisine. This unique combination has become a mainstay in all locations, including the third and largest Lava Cantina in The Colony.
Ian fortuitously started his restaurant career as an hourly shift manager at one of the first nine locations of Raising Cane’s® Chicken Fingers and quickly rose through the ranks to serve as COO for more than 200 restaurants in 18 states. His father, Steve Vaughn, had more than 40 years of experience in the music industry while also holding a day job to support his family. As Steve approached retirement and sought a new post-career endeavor, the idea for “a combination of all the things they both love -- great food, family, people and music” sparked the fire for the Lava Cantina brand. Their menu has tongue-in-cheek references to rock and roll while holding true to their unique Creole-Mexican flair.
To start things off, my husband chose a mango margarita with Crawfish and Gator Dip. I selected Great Balls of Fire as my “Opening Act” and gave a nod to Bourbon Street with a Hurricane drink. Both drinks were excellent, and my husband raved over the Crawfish and Gator Dip. Trading bites of each other’s appetizers, my husband took one of the four, large Mexican boudin balls filled with chorizo, cilantro and Mexican rice and heartily dipped it in the accompanying sauce. He did so with as much fervor as he had scooped up the Crawfish and Gator Dip, popping half the ball, dripping with sauce, into his mouth. Suddenly, things were cooking! His eyes were watering, his skin was turning a new shade of red and there was an emergency reach for that glorious mango margarita! We highly recommend both appetizers, but dip lightly with those Great Balls of Fire!
Our “Main Events” consisted of the Zydeco Enchilada and the Smoked Chicken Enchilada. Described as French Quarter-style crepes filled with Oaxaca, Asedero and Monterrey Jack cheeses, the Zydeco Enchilada is topped with Creole lump crab meat meuniere sauce, shredded cabbage and a hush puppy. The Smoked Chicken Enchilada is topped with chicken, poblano cream, shredded cabbage and a hush puppy as well. These dishes provided for a fun, delicious Creole-Mexican twist, as promised!
The “Encore” that stole the show was Dr. Feelgood’s Cheesecake, a magnificent tower of crisp, sugary cinnamon sopapilla wafers layered between soft, creamy clouds of cheesecake — all piled on a luscious bed of blueberries and raspberries. What an encore it was!
The night was not over! On the east side of the dining room, security guards wearing bright yellow smiley face t-shirts checked our wrist bands, and one friendly, smiling face escorted us outside through the VIP patio, up a set of stairs and onto the covered balcony. Bar tables facing the stage, high-top tables and bench seating with a random trumpet thrown in were quickly filled, yet it did not feel overly crowded. The sun was setting and soft breezes were blowing, so the retractable coverings were inconspicuously tucked away. Viewing the Infinite Journey concert from the balcony, feeling like we were attending a small, private concert, proved to be the grandest of finales.
Well done, Lava Cantina! Bravo!