Wednesday, March 11, 2009

La Casita Opened My Eyes...

For those of you living in Los Angeles, Mexican food is as part of our culture as Disneyland and the Dodgers. Regardless of what part of town you're in, you're bound to see one, two or more Mexican restaurants in your neighborhood, from fast food joints like Taco Bell and chain restaurants like El Torito to small hole in the wall taquerias and casual family-run restaurants.

If you've been following my blog for awhile, you probably know that while my emphasis tends to be on Asian dining, I love trying various cuisines, but the one cuisine that I tended to overlook in the past was Mexican food. I always felt like there wasn't enough variety. The menus of the Mexican restaurants I'd walk into consisted primarily of tacos, burritos, tostadas, quesadillas, etc. Not that those dishes weren't tasty, but once I sampled everything, there wasn't anything to look forward to.

It wasn't until my first meal at La Casita that my eyes were opened to new and different tasty possibilities that I never experienced before and all because of the soulful cooking of Chef-Owners, Jaime Martin del Campo and Ramiro Arvizu. I've dined at La Casita for the past 3 years and with each meal, I'm just thankful that I've been able to expand my view of Mexican cuisine and experience more of its culinary traditions.

Given that I've been a steady visitor of La Casita, I thought I'd share with you some of the dishes that have wowed me over the years. One thing to mention is that while I have eaten dishes from their regular menu, there have been times when I've had off the menu items as well because of one of the Assistant Organizers of my dining group, Pleasure Palate. She truly is a frequent customer and as such, has a special rapport with the two chefs, which has resulted in some pretty special meals . I'll be sure to note those off menu items in my descriptions below. If you'd like to order any of the off menu items, call ahead at the restaurant and they may be able to accommodate you.

As mentioned above, my first visit to La Casita really gave me a new perspective on Mexican cuisine and on that first day, the following are some of the dishes that made me say, "I didn't know Mexican food could be like this." One of our starters for that meal was the Cream of Pork Rind Soup (off menu). Who would have thought the crunchy goodness of pig skin could be made into a soup? Yes, it is possible and wow, was it good.

Then there was the Traditional Mole Poblano with Chicken. This was actually my first taste of mole and the flavors hitting my taste buds were amazing ~ nutty, smoky, a little bit sweet, a little heat. Simply amazing.

The two desserts we had that day were quite unique. One was the Dulce de Jicama (off menu), candied jicama with cinnamon in a creamy sauce. It reminded me of rice pudding, but the jicama added a nice juicy crunch.

The second dessert were Guayabas Con Rompope, stewed guavas in a Mexican eggnog liquor. Tart and sweet. Christmas came early.

A subsequent visit was a Day of the Dead dinner where I was introduced to their Tamalito of Green Chile and Panela Cheese with Red Mole (off menu). It was moist with a bit of a kick from the tender chili peppers and the red mole sauce was outstanding.

This particular visit was also where I first tried one of La Casita's signature dishes, the Chili En Nogada. The Chili En Nogada is a poblano pepper stuffed with pork, dried fruits, walnuts, candied cactus, pecan cream sauce and topped with pomegranate seeds. I liked how the poblano pepper still had a slight crunch to it. The filling was delicious and the pomegranate seeds added just the right touch of tartness.

It wasn't until several months after that Day of the Dead dinner that I was able to re-visit La Casita and what a welcome back it was. While I got to try some new things, there were definitely a couple of items I wanted to savor again like their Cauliflower Cakes (off menu), which were battered cauliflower smothered with a red chili sauce. Cauliflower, as a whole, can be pretty bland, but not the way it was prepared at La Casita.

I was also happy to get a repeat taste of their Divorced Chilaquiles, with one half of the tortillas topped with salsa verde and the other with a red chili sauce. I loved how light and crunchy the tortilla chips were and always are.

As mentioned, there were a few new dishes included in our meal. Two of them really stood out. One was the Chiles Rellenos with Fresh Corn and Squash in Chile Rojo (off menu), which was a fresh and bright change from chili relleno that is usually stuffed with cheese.

The Fish in a Blackberry Mole (off menu) was truly a revelation. By this time, I've experienced quite a variety of moles, from chocolate and pipian moles to green and yellow moles to even green and white moles at La Casita as well as other Mexican restaurants, but none had such a concentration of a particular fruit or ingredient as that blackberry mole dish. It was truly superb, both sweet and tart.

At other visits, we ordered strictly from the menu. Be sure to check out their two melted cheese dishes. If you love chorizo, a must order for you is their Cheese Fondue with Chorizo. Tear off a piece of tortilla, add a dollop of cheese and chorizo, wrap it, eat it and repeat it. Delicious!

If chorizo is not your thing, check out the Aztec Cheese which is filled with poblano chile slices, mushrooms and herbs. The cheese for both dishes are made up of 4 different Mexican cheeses.

Looking for something light? If so, then the mini chicken tostados may be small enough to satisfy without filling you to absolute capacity. How can you go wrong with marinated chicken, chunks of cotija cheese, tomatoes, lettuce and red onions on top of crispy round tortillas?

Their Chili Relleno with Hoop Cheese is also quite tasty and when you cut a cross-section of the poblano pepper, you'll see right away that they are definitely not shy about taking care of any cheese cravings you may have.

If you have a sweet tooth, their mini housemade churros stuffed with cajeta or chocolate will put a smile on your face and if you happen to order a Mexican hot chocolate, dipping your churros into that chocolate goodness is a must try.

As you can see, La Casita is definitely one of my favorite restaurants and just when I think that I can't be surprised by Chefs Jaime and Ramiro anymore, it happens again. Recently, I took part in a 17 course dinner at La Casita that even now makes me happy from the inside out just thinking about it. The meal was a mixture of dishes I've had in the past and also, off the menu items like the Tequila-Infused Guacamole with Grasshoppers (off menu). I loved the creaminess of the guacamole and the light crunchy, earthiness of the dried grasshoppers.

We also got to sample their Green Ceviche (off menu), a pollock fish with poblano pepper, cilantro, onions, cucumber and lime juice. Refreshing and tart and I really enjoyed the crunch of the cucumber. What a great addition. This would be something perfect to have on a hot day.

The other seafood offering was a Fish with a Morita Chile Sauce (off menu). That morita sauce really gave some my fellow diners who had untrained palates when it came to spicy food, a rush towards a glass of water or bread to calm the flames. Not that I'm that much of a chili head, but for me it was just right and reminded me of tamarind for some reason. It had tangy flavor that I liked.

Part of the meal also included a recipe demonstration from the cookbook Chef Jaime and Ramiro are working on, revolving around the use of a Molcajete when it comes to making salsa. I think Mexican restaurants should adopt table side salsa making. It was fun to watch plus when everything was said and done, that salsa that was made right in front of me was absolutely fantastic.

That 17 course meal extravaganza ended with 4 desserts, two of which I've already talked about previously. Two of which were completely new. First, there was the one I'm going to refer to as an Arroz Con Leche Tortilla Won Ton (off menu), which was basically rice pudding in a tortilla shell.

The final dessert of the evening was Sweet Potato and Pineapple on a Cinnamon/Sugar Tortilla Chip (off menu). I liked how the opposing sweet and tart flavors of the two ingredients balanced each other out.

Overall, if you couldn't tell already, I'm a big fan of La Casita and if all you've ever had of Mexican food has been limited to tacos and burritos, La Casita will definitely open your eyes as they have mine to what else is out there when it comes to Mexican cuisine. All you have to do is take that leap.

To see all the pics, go to:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/la_addict/sets/72157594224654031/
http://www.flickr.com/photos/la_addict/sets/72157594375399445/
http://www.flickr.com/photos/la_addict/sets/72157600255483152/
http://www.flickr.com/photos/la_addict/sets/72157611933670065/
http://www.flickr.com/photos/la_addict/sets/72157614230393391/
http://www.flickr.com/photos/la_addict/sets/72157614786199025/

La Casita Mexicana
4030 Gage Avenue
Bell, CA 90201
(323) 773-1898
http://www.casitamex.com/

La Casita Mexicana on Urbanspoon

8 comments:

mattatouille said...

first to comment! I spoke with the chefs at Gold Standard and talked about having a bunch of bloggers for another 17 courser. Javier of Teenage Glutster would help out with logistics. Anyways, we'll use this post as a guide, thanks! great review

pleasurepalate said...

Hey Matt. I think that's great that you're going to do that 17 courser at La Casita and I'm glad that my posting will help with your menu choices. Chefs Jaime and Ramiro are really great guys and I know they'll give you an awesome experience. :)

Diana said...

Wow. I'm a little speechless! I too never knew that Mexican food could come out looking like those plates you have photographed so beautifully. I'm going to need to check this place out!

WeezerMonkey said...

I want! I want!

pleasurepalate said...

Diana/Weezer: When you get a chance, I hope that you give La Casita a try. The food is simply that good. :)

Food GPS said...

Nice rundown of your experiences. The guac with chapulines, ceviche and sweet potato dessert all look outstanding.

I've probably eaten at La Casita Mexicana 15 times, and never been disappointed. Their sea bass dishes would seem like a bargain at 3x the price. Their churros and chile en nogada are also best in class. Looks like you got a preview of their new restaurant, which should outshine the terrific original by several degrees. Did Jaime and Ramiro happen to mention when Version 2.0 will debut?

http://www.foodgps.com/review/la-casita-mexicana-expansion/

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Abby,

Great review. :) This looks like a great restaurant (it's been on my "to try" list for a long time, but I never get around to them yet). The stewed guavas look delicious! (I love guava :)

pleasurepalate said...

Food GPS: I didn't find out from Jaime or Ramiro when their other restaurant will be opening, but I'm excited when it does because of that newer menu you spoke of.

EK: Every time I go, I'm always torn between the guavas and the churros and usually end up getting them both. :)