Hours: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., seven days a week.
Atmosphere: Mexican hacienda style.
Price range: Appetizers from $1.50 to $2.50, with combination platters for $6.45. Entrees from $4.65 to $8.45. A few items, house specials, for $11.45.
Credit cards: Visa, Mastercard, American Express (accepted only at dinner).
Reservations: Not necessary, but recommended for parties over six persons.
Special facilities: Accessible to patrons in wheelchairs; highchairs and booster seats for young children.
Past the wrought-iron grillwork and tiles decorating the front of La Casita, low rounded ocher-colored arches combine with a riotous display of tiles on walls, floor and tables to create a cavernous, but festive, effect.
A suit of armor standing near the entrance immediately caught the children's attention on a recent Sunday afternoon visit, as did the bouquets of strange feather flowers. But what they liked best were the electronic games set into tables for two in the sunken bar at the back of the restaurant.
As they devoured the tostadas waiting for us at the table -- still warm, obviously just fried -- we considered what to order.
We turned to the a' la carte page printed at the back of the menu, figuring from the prices ($1.75 to $3.50) that the portions would be smaller and more lunch-sized.
We were in the act of requesting my favorite, chiles rellenos (stuffed peppers delicately fried in an egg batter), when our waiter told us that we had to order from the dinner menu. (A special fixed-price brunch is offered on Saturday and Sunday, but it seemed that only the regulars knew how to order successfully from the a' la carte menu.) Fortunately, although the dinner menu lacked chiles rellenos, the choice was wide and mouth-watering.
For starters we decided to share one of the house samplers, the bocaditos platter ($6.45). Nachos, quesadillas, empanaditas and tamales surrounded a cool green guacamole nested in a crispy basket-shaped taco. The nachos were made with tostadas -- large triangles of fried tortilla -- and laden with frijoles (fried black beans) and melted cheese.
The quesadillas were thicker and more doughy, folded over a filling of creamy cheese and chili pepper. By removing the bits of pepper, we persuaded the children to taste them. And on the flimsy pretext that they just had hamburger inside, we managed to have them try the empanaditas. These were deep-fried turnovers, made from wheat flour and filled with spicy shredded beef.
But the tamales were the best appetizer of all. The waiter explained that the masa was steamed in corn husks: when cooked, the soft white dough peeled right off, ready to be eaten, alone or with any number of fillings. These were filled with a mild and delicious white cheese.
The size of our entrees was enormous. All dishes, including those from the children's menu, came with helpings of frijoles and rice. I ordered the empanada kid ($4.95), a more substantial version of the empanaditas, and later regretted not having splurged for the sake of variety on el cabrito al carbon ($11.45), the charcoal grilled goat served only on weekends.
My friends were more original. One ordered the gordita special ($4.95). These are fatter variations of the tortilla; they were filled with beef and topped with shredded lettuce and pieces of tomato. But the enchilada kid ($5.95) was tastier. Smothered with melted cheese, these rolled tortillas were stuffed with a beef mixture in a superlative tomato-rich sauce.
El cavalito ($1.90), the children's platter, was announced on the menu as a choice of a crispy beef taco or a beef enchilada. As one of the children had mixed feelings about spicy beef, we wondered if the enchilada could be made with chicken instead. No problem, said our waiter.
But the high point of the lunch was the Mexican barbecue ($8.75). Rather than the massive steak we had anticipated, it came as tasty little cubes of beef, evidently marinated in something other than the barbecue sauce familiar to American suburbanites. Because it came with tortillas and guacamole, it dawned on us that we were supposed to spoon the beef, the guacamole and perhaps some beans onto the tortillas and eat them as if they were Chinese moo shu pork.
The combination of tastes and textures -- the smokiness of the beef, the smoothness of the guacamole and the nutty pastiness of the beans -- was superb.
The dessert menu was disappointing. Only one item was listed: sopapillas ($1.50), a deep-fried rectangular doughnut, thin and delicate, dribbled with honey and dusted with cinnamon. Although it was very good and a great success with the children, I was sorry the chef's repertoire did not include a Mexican rice pudding or natillas, the classic vanilla custard.
Dinner for five cost $43.37, including two Dos Equis beers, a large Coke, and tax.