by Richard and Missy Lee

Cantina Feliz’ co-owners, Brian Serhal (left) and Chef Tim Spinner, are seen at the restaurant’s bar. The two met in high school. (Photo by Daniel M. Schwartz)

In 1996, two friends graduated from West Winslow-Plainsboro High School in New Jersey. After earning a degree in communications from Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania, one of them, Tim Spinner, overcame this collegiate diversion from his true passion — food — by graduating from The Restaurant School in Philadelphia. After college, his friend, Brian Sirhal, who also had some food experience, opted for the suits and ties of Wall Street finance. The two kept in touch, as good friends will.

Tim honed his skills for seven years working with Stephen Starr and especially Iron Chef Jose Garces, becoming Garces’ Sous Chef at Center City’s El Vez, a Starr enterprise. When Garces left El Vez to open Amada, Spinner followed as Executive Sous Chef, and as Chef de Cuisine at Garces’ next venture, Distrito, in University City. Each restaurant earned its share of local praise.

Meanwhile, back in New York, Brian Sirhal had gone from finance to food, beginning as a server and winding up as a manager at New York’s famed Rosa Mexicano. From there, Brian at last joined Tim at Distrito in June of 2008, where he became Beverage Manager. In 2010, the two formed a partnership and opened Cantina Feliz in Fort Washington this past January.

Both friends are now married, with young children. (Sirhal’s wife, Sandy, grew up in Erdenheim.) During his courting days, Brian would often drive by the then-restaurant, Marita’s Cantina, at 424 South Bethlehem Pike in Fort Washington. “Not in my wildest dreams did I think I’d one day run a restaurant, much less a Mexican restaurant, at this location,” he said.

But run a restaurant they do, and quite a restaurant it is in the location most recently occupied by Alison 2. On a recent Wednesday, we went early to meet Tim and Brian and have dinner. It was a delightful experience.  The décor is Southwest, with desert and tropical colors used to harmonious effect, and there a remarkable mural showing the Day of the Dead, the Mexican equivalent of our, Halloween.

This can become a noisy restaurant since it has tiled and wood floors and painted walls and ceilings with no curtains, carpets or other sound-deadeners. But, put that aside; the food is worth it.

The dinner menu looks simpler than it is because it’s on one side of a single laminated page. The drinks menu is on the reverse side. There are 11 appetizers at $7 to $13.95, two soups at $5.95, two salads ($8), five entrees ($14 to $25), seven varieties of tacos from $9 to $18, and more.

The lunch menu includes a two-course prix fixe deal at $12.95. Desserts at lunch and dinner include sorbets, banana-cocoanut cream cake, and more. And there’s even a menu for “little amigos;” yes, the place is definitely kid-friendly. This was proved by several parties with children, even babies, as part of the festive crowd when we dined.

When the menus are at least partly in a language not one’s own (neither of us knows Spanish), it’s essential that the waitstaff be experts at explaining its dishes. If Nina Grisafi, our charming waitress, is any example, Tim and Brian have this base thoroughly covered.

Nina Grisafi, a charming server at Cantina Feliz, displays two tasty entrees, black bass and mole poblano. (Photo by Richard S. Lee)

When the one of us who’s non-spicy (in food preferences, that is) asked about the Mole Poblano, Nina rightfully suggested Black Bass with poblano cream, potato, spinach and pearl onions as a non-spicy alternative. This dish made a bold presentation and was a perfect choice: moist, rich and generous. (It’s also the second-priciest entrée at $24.)

Mr. Spicy then opted for the Mole Poblano (organic chicken breast with plantain rice, pomegranate and sesame seeds, $16) which was simply the most delicious version of chicken I have ever eaten. Both entrees were preceded by an appetizer of Guacamole with dipping chips that could have fed a quartet ($9).

The list of Margaritas, specialty cocktails, beers, wines, tequilas and tequila flights calls for small type indeed to fit onto one page! Traditional tastes are not neglected; we started with an excellent Skyy martini. Cantina Feliz buys their ingredients locally as much as possible. Their exceptional coffee, for instance, comes from Chestnut Hill Coffee Company.

Getting to Cantina Feliz may not be half the fun, since the roads are trickier following a recent reconstruction. From Chestnut Hill, take Bethlehem Pike to a left turn at Lafayette Avenue Connector, then right at the light onto Lafayette, and straight ahead into their parking lot. Caution: watch for traffic on your right.

More information at 215-646-1320 or