‘Casita’ houses cosas horribles

Until recently, when it came to finding Mexican food in the Elm City, if you didn’t want to spring for Roomba you were left with the likes of Bulldog Burrito, El Amigo’s and Viva’s (and then, only if you could fight your way through the frat boys, all vying for the attention of one overworked waitress). The opening of La Casita — a new restaurant on Temple Street near the Criterion — offers a more civilized dining experience, even if not significantly improved fare.

The restaurant is decorated with semi-upscale faux Mexican kitsch: sombreros and a framed Corona Extra poster flank the bar, but a more subdued decor prevails in the dining areas. While the neon beer logos in the windows don’t exactly scream class, it’s at least a place where you could take your parents (although maybe not the place for those rare outings with your suitemate’s rich uncle).

When we walked in the door, the cheerful waitress seemed a bit stunned at the presence of customers (though, granted, it was early on a Tuesday evening, when the only New Haven eateries already filling up their tables accept the Yale meal plan).

While enthusiastic and attentive, our waitress was distinctly “new” — I received the quesadilla version of the burrito I ordered, and we had to clarify three times whether we wanted salt or sugar with our margaritas. Also, though the restaurant only had eight other patrons, it took roughly an hour to move past appetizers and entrees. If the learning curve doesn’t pick up faster than the number of customers, La Casita may rapidly become one of those places no one goes to because it’s too crowded.

We began our meal with margaritas ($5): on the rocks, frozen, or flavored and half-priced on Tuesdays, with your choice of sugar or salt on the rim. The nightly drink specials are arguably La Casita’s best asset, though you might have trouble rationalizing margaritas on a Tuesday night (or you might just have trouble surviving section after downing one). The drinks pack a sufficient punch, and don’t scream “watered down” or “lighter fluid” the way many Elm City mixed drinks do.

With our drinks came a basket of tortilla chips with salsa, which tasted vaguely like marinara sauce with two or three unmanageably large hunks of tomato plopped in it. We supplemented the free chips with an order of Fiesta Beef Nachos ($8.95) which were, if nothing else, totally familiar: a mound of tortilla chips topped with cheddar jack cheese and too much sour cream and jalapeno peppers. The guacamole was mostly diced onions, and the beef was marinated and cooked past the point of recognizability — while it was tender, it was pretty un-meat-like.

Unfortunately, this trend continued. Many of the dishes we ordered approximated what the menu had described, but were either too spicy, too bland, or simply trying too hard to be quite successful. The Barbecue Pork Quesadillas ($8.95) were supposed to contain mango salsa and goat cheese, but the cheese was sparsely distributed and the salsa was, for all intents and purposes, nonexistent.

Likewise, while the House Special Aztlan Quesadillas ($11.95) contained artichoke, baby spinach, cream sauce and scallops, each piece was overwhelmed by large shrimps which made the floppy tortillas difficult to eat with any sense of propriety.

The Beef Enchiladas Rojas ($11.95) were generally unexceptional, though the meat suffered from the same marinade as that in the nachos, and at times tasted as much like a grape popsicle as actual beef.

All of the entrees arrived on a bed of shredded iceberg lettuce, with either guacamole or sour cream, and what was probably meant to be pico de gallo, though the tiny hunks of tomato got lost in the big pile of lettuce. The loss was a shame, as these tomatoes seemed to be the only fresh vegetable to grace our table that evening.

If it were a little less expensive, La Casita might be a gem on Temple, but the prices anchor it pretty squarely among the hoards of ethnic restaurants that already monopolize New Haven cuisine.

Overall, the restaurant offers a familiar brand of unexceptional Mexican food, one that satisfies a craving without changing your life. But in New Haven, where Mexican tends towards the overcrowded and low-brow bar scene, at least you could take a date to La Casita without leaving her stuck to the floor.

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