Hours: Tuesday through Thursday 11:30 a.m. to 8 p.m., Friday 11:30 a.m. to 8:45 p.m., Saturday noon to 8 p.m., Sunday noon to 7 p.m. Prices: Most items $1 to $4. Cards: No credit cards or checks accepted.
Half a roast chicken for $3.80. A sausage omelette for $2.05. A big plate of goulash for $4.50. Is this some sort of time warp? Have we been transported back to 1955? No, it's just good old Casa Baez, a remarkable little Latin carry-out restaurant where two people can still enjoy a good dinner for less than $10. The food is not uniformly outstanding -- there are places in the Adams-Morgan section of Washington where Latin dishes are better and more varied -- but most of what Casa Baez offers is of high quality, and some items are very good indeed. And we haven't found any place in Adams-Morgan that can match the prices.
But before you rush off to experience Casa Baez, adjust your expectations. This is not a place to take your boss for dinner. The plates and forks are plastic, the tables are bare formica, the lighting is fluorescent, and you'll carry your own tray from the counter.
Now that you're in the right frame of mind, let's explore the menu. Tacos are wonderful, with just the right chewy-crisp bite to the wrappers and lots of flavor in the fillings -- and the meat in the chicken taco is remarkably juicy.
In fact, chicken is a good bet across the board. There's a top-notch chicken enchilada, for example, meaty and flavorful, with an excellent sauce. And that $3.80 roast chicken is a jewel, possibly the best entree in the house -- an absolutely fresh bird (taste how sweet the dark meat is, right down to the bone) in which even the breast is moist, and with a golden, crackly skin. Like most of the other dishes, it's served with excellent afterthoughts: the beans are nicely flavored and the rice is commendably fluffy and separate-grained.
Most restaurant tamales are nothing more than damp, disagreeable cylinders of mush -- so poor it's a wonder anyone orders them. Casa Baez reminds you of how good tamales can be: the steamed cornmeal light, spongy and with real corn flavor, the lard used sparingly.
Chili con carne has lots of beef, but on our last visit it was inedibly salty -- too bad, and probably a one-time slip-up. The omelettes are not fluffy masterpieces, but they're good and filling. Besides, at $2.05, who's complaining? Try the variety with the excellent, garlicky sausage, or, if you're a sausage fan, have a big plate of it with flavored rice at $3.60. It's the best of the four rice-meat dishes. (Forget the two with seafood, which are relatively expensive and contain somewhat dry, flavorless shrimp, fish and lobster.)
More meat dishes. Cuban-style shredded beef is delightful, with a subtle, delicately flavored sauce. Beef goulash is anything but subtle: good cubes of lean beef flavored with bits of chili pepper, bay leaf and what tastes like caraway seed -- what a nice contrast with the mildness of the beans and rice. Steak creole is no sirloin -- at $4.70 that would be too much of a miracle even for Casa Baez -- but it's excellent nonetheless, a big, unusually juicy piece of lean cube steak with a mild, meaty flavor.
You may want to stop elsewhere for dessert. Casa Baez remains a place for outstanding bargains, particularly if you're in a jeans-and-sweater mood. It's certainly one of a kind.