Most Alabama cities – even small towns – have at least one Mexican restaurant. Quite a few have more than one. Gadsden, in the state’s northeast corner, has more than 12. And five of those are within five miles of S-Á Cantina, which fronts Broad Street (the main drag) in the city’s charming downtown.
Even though his spot also specializes in Mexican food, S-Á Cantina owner Aaron Disouryavong is fine with all the competition. That’s chiefly because he believes his business stands apart. “S-Á is kinda unique,” he says. “I try to be pretty authentic but with the twist of a few other cultural infusions as well.”
He opened S-Á Cantina in 2021, and with a quick glance at the menu, the difference is clear. While it includes “south of the border” standards like tacos and quesadillas, S-Á’s versions venture beyond seasoned ground beef and chicken and incorporate influences from other cuisines too, with offerings like tender duck tucked with melty salty cheese into a crisp quesadilla and roasted cauliflower cozied up to slices of soft avocado and bits of sharp onion in a taco. There are nachos spiced with chorizo and cooled with crema, charred and cheesy elote (Mexican street corn) and homey tamales too.
The duck has roots in Disouryavong’s Asian heritage; he’s half Laotian. “I make a tamarind-paste-based glaze and marinate the duck in that, then cook it on the grill and caramelize it before shredding it,” he says. All the recipes are his. While Disouryavong is not a professionally trained cook, he’s drawn on extensive travels, his experience in the restaurant biz and his own tastebuds. “I’ve traveled all over Mexico and to multiple metro areas and have lived in mega food cities like Chicago,” he says. “That all comes together in this.”
The ingredient list for each dish is short. Most tacos are built with a handful of basics (but all fresh and most, made from scratch): meat, cilantro, onion (raw or pickled) and a sauce or salsa resting in a soft corn tortilla. Almost every taco can be served instead as a bowl, which eliminates the tortilla and layers the fillings on top of black beans and cilantro-strewn rice. “I wanted all the food to be simple, clean and flavorful,” he says. “I like that it is a bit healthier and think my customers do too.”
The best sellers so far are the pork belly and duck in both taco and bowl form, with steak a close second. Disouryavong has a tough time picking his personal favorite. “I love the mahi-mahi and shrimp tacos, but also the pork belly,” he says. “Oh wait, actually, it’s the duck tacos. I guess I like it all.”
One other aspect also makes the Cantina distinct: Disouryavong’s “no substitutions” directive, which he often has to explain but is eager to defend. “I put so much time into the recipes to ensure every element works just right together,” he says. “It’s important to me that people experience the flavors as I designed it. That’s why I put it clearly on the menu and online, so people know before they order.” It’s been a sticking point for a few people, but he says most seem to get it.
Pushing people to expand their palates a bit is one element of his food philosophy and part of why he’s so proud of S-Á. “I love encouraging people to try something new or something somewhat familiar but with a new take,” he says. He’s equally proud of the Cantina’s cocktails.
“Every cocktail is freshly made with all fresh ingredients, not mixes,” he says. All margaritas are made to order with the powerful zip of fresh-squeezed juices.
His emphasis on fresh comes from working in the restaurant world for more than a decade, doing marketing and management for multiple Hispanic restaurants, and seeing how quality ingredients elevate any type of food. Owning his own eatery has been a dream for a long time, and he realized it with a Tex-Mex spot he opened in in Grant, Ala., a few years ago. But S-Á Cantina is the embodiment of the concept that’s always been in his mind.
“This is what I’ve always wanted to do,” he says, “and I felt like Gadsden would respond to it and support it.”
Disouryavong’s been loving a lot of what goes on in the Cantina’s open space, as he interacts with diners happily munching on his food while seated at polished wooden picnic tables against the backdrop of vibrant murals.
He also relishes the relationships that food can forge; his desire to really know and please repeat guests was part of the inspiration for the restaurant’s name. “In the beginning, I had a partner for this venture, and the S-Á part was our initials. But by the time we got ready to open, he had moved on,” Disouryavong says. “But I realized when you say it, it sounds like ‘ese’, which is Mexican slang for ‘hey brother’ or ‘hey friend,’ and I felt like that meaning fits this place and my passion. There’s never a moment when I don’t want to come to work, to meet the diners and serve them something fresh and good.”