driftwood cantina taco spread

Amid a Pandemic, a Change For the Better

In Eat, July/August 2020, Web Exclusive by Lauren KruchtenLeave a Comment

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WEB EXCLUSIVE When COVID-19 initially shut down restaurants in March, most either closed temporarily—or, in some cases, permanently–switched to to-go or delivery, or started selling grocery items rather than meals. Nunizo Scordo, on the other hand, decided to flip his restaurant concept completely, changing Driftwood Southern Kitchen + Bar to Driftwood Cantina, a Mexican-inspired restaurant and bar.

Scordo says that, had it not been for a PPP loan and the meals his team was preparing for the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle, Driftwood would most likely have had to close permanently due to lack of income. When phase 2 came around and Driftwood was gearing up to reopen, Scordo talked to his managers about relaunching as something different. “I was like, ‘If we’re going to do this, let’s just start from scratch,'” Scordo says. “Let’s do something that we really think is going to work, something that’s fun, affordable and packages well.”

Scordo had been contemplating the idea for a Mexican concept for a little over a year now. He says Southern food became overplayed here in Raleigh and he didn’t find it interesting anymore; every Southern restaurant had the same menu of fried chicken and Southern-inspired brunches.

With Driftwood closed due to coronavirus, Scordo saw the perfect opportunity to see out his idea for a Mexican restaurant. He thought a new kind of restaurant would reinvigorate his employees after they’d been out of work for so long, and that Mexican food would attract customers already trekking to Lafayette Village for burgers and Italian.

Scordo revamped the originally neutral-toned space into a colorful, tropical-themed restaurant complete with fun murals by local artist Sean Kernick. He also closed off the open kitchen and added a huge pergola outside that increased seating from 30 seats to 70.

The bright colors and renewed energy set the tone for excellent Mexican food, which Scordo says is unlike offerings at any other Mexican restaurant in Raleigh. Think yucca fries, esquites and tacos loaded with braised lamb barbacoa, pulled confit duck leg, grilled chipotle adobo marinated shrimp and more. “We’re doing things the way they’re done in Mexico and give it our own stamp,” says Scordo.

The main thing that sets Driftwood Cantina apart from the rest, however, are the house made tortillas, which Scordo and his team prepare everyday at exactly 4 p.m. Soon, the restaurant will have a wet stone grinder—they’re currently having it made in Mexico—that will allow them to carry out the nixtamlization process of grinding corn down to masa for tortilla making. “What you’re going to get is a tortilla like you’ve never had before because it tastes like you’re eating fresh corn,” Scordo explains. “Our tortillas right now are really good because we make them and we’ve got it down to an exact science, but once we starting doing [nixtamalization], it’s a whole different ball game.”

Scordo will source five different varieties of heirloom corn from Oaxaca. Additionally, he shops at local Latino grocery stores in Raleigh and Durham for many of the specialty ingredients used in dishes that comprise the rest of the menu.

Scordo has made the most out of an unfortunate situation, creating a refreshing concept highlighting Mexican food and culture in a significant way within a fun, energetic environment. “In history when things like this happen, people either roll over or they reinvent themselves,” says Scordo. “For me, I took what I knew and flipped it on its head. This was a time for reinvention.”

Driftwood Cantina is open for dine-in and takeout. Order online at toasttab.com/driftwood-kitchen-bar.

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