A new bar and restaurant set to open late this winter aims to bring the tastes of Southern California to downtown Tuscaloosa, complemented by some of the most carefully crafted cocktails the city has to offer.

The new concept, SoCal Cantina, is a collaboration between Grant McCabe, the owner of Rounders bar on the Tuscaloosa Strip, and two Miami entrepreneurs, Leo Holtzman and AJ Billapando.

For six years, Holtzman and Billapando have run SoCal Cantina in Miami, although circumstances beyond their control have caused the restaurant to move multiple times.

Holtzman said he was introduced to McCabe through a mutual friend, and the Tuscaloosa businessman immediately began trying to convince the duo to partner with him and bring their tacos, margaritas and cocktails to the Druid City.

Holtzman and Billapando were not easily persuaded, he said.

"We all had our different ideas of what the Alabama market was, especially in comparison to being in a city like Miami," Holtzman said. "Our cocktails are pretty high brow and we weren’t sure if that would fit the college market."

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After a few visits, though, McCabe was able to convince the Miami business partners to visit Tuscaloosa, scope out potential competitors and meet with bar patrons on the Strip and downtown.

"When we were in Alabama, we went to this bar one night and Grant told us to just go around and talk to people and ask where they were from," Holtzman said. "We found out you had people from California, New York, all these major cities who are down in Alabama, and they told us there aren’t really drinks like we were talking about available locally, but they said they would all love to go to a place like that."

The trio ultimately agreed that SoCal Cantina could thrive in Tuscaloosa, and McCabe had just the spot to test that theory — the former site of Bo's Bar at 2310 University Boulevard, two doors down from DePalma's Italian Cafe.

Extensive renovations to the space are underway now, but Holtzman told the Thread that supply chain issues are bogging down the process as some of the restaurant's major appliances are stuck in the San Diego Bay waiting to be offloaded from cargo ships and delivered to Tuscaloosa.

Those delays have moved SoCal's target opening day from early December to mid-January, optimistically, but enough about all that. What can patrons expect when the new eatery finally opens?

Holtzman said the menu will boast around 10 high-quality tacos complemented by burritos, bowls, quesadillas and nachos.

"All of our tacos are our own personal creations and they all have between four and seven ingredients," Holtzman said. "Our menu also offers vegan and vegetarian options and 90 percent of our food is gluten-free."

One example, the Santa Monica, features "Red Crack Chicken," chipotle sour cream, chopped white onion, sliced avocado and cotija cheese.

Check out the full menu for their Miami spot here.

Holtzman also said the cantina is looking at adding one taco and one cocktail that are exclusive to the Tuscaloosa restaurant and make nods to southern cuisine and culture.

To wash down tacos that Holtzman called "some of the best you'll ever have," SoCal will feature a robust drink menu featuring high-end cocktails created with top-quality ingredients.

"Our menu has six original margaritas and six cocktails of all the different other skews," he said. "We’ve won Best Margarita in Miami three years in a row for a drink called the Gardener’s Margarita, which is a pretty eclectic creation. It has a sugar-salted rim for that kettle corn flavor, sweet and savory, then we add red bell peppers, cucumbers and serranos muddled with Reposado tequila and four-hour lime juice that we’ve run through an aerator to take out some of the bite."

Holtzman said SoCal has also perfected a house-made hot sauce that has transformed over four years of experimentation from a simple spicy add-in to "the star of any dish."

The entrepreneurs also plan to make use of the building's second-floor space and open a standalone cocktail bar there, but that idea is months if not years away from realization, Holtzman said.

For now, Holtzman, Billapando and McCabe are just excited to finish renovations at their downtown Tuscaloosa spot and welcome patrons to SoCal's first-ever location outside of Miami.

"I’ve been in the restaurant game for almost 14 years now and at every restaurant I’ve worked, I’ve always eventually gotten sick of the food after eating it every day," Holtzman said. "For more than six years now, I’ve been having our food basically every day and I still get excited for it. I’m really stoked to bring this food and see how well it's received in Tuscaloosa. And our drinks — they're really just something else."

Check out the original SoCal Cantina on Instagram for a preview of what's to come in January, and stay connected to the Tuscaloosa Thread for more news on this project and all other local restaurant and retail development.

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