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And when a dish lists garlic as an ingredient, expect the entire farm. This evil member of the lily family is applied in such strength to filete de pescado al mojo de ajo that my eyes water just from the fumes. I adore garlic, though, and feel blessed. I like the attack of the caldo tlapeno, too. It's a soothing-looking soup of a light tomato-onion-garlic broth, stocked with shredded chicken, fresh cilantro and calbacitas (diced al dente zucchini, carrots, chayote squash and onion with peas, chickpeas and corn). Yet lurking in the depths is an entire chipotle. Wow, that's feisty jalapeño flavor, with serious back-of-throat burn. The bowl is a meal, squeezed with fresh lime and dipped with flour tortillas.
La Casa's specialty is seafood, and it's abundant in the restaurant's signature Seven Seas Soup, crafted from a Castellanos family recipe. A base of spiced broth and vegetables becomes almost a stew with buckets of octopus, calamari, shrimp, crab legs, fish, scallops and oysters. Shrimp is first-rate, like the culichi recipe, smothered in a tangy green chile/cheese/sour cream blend and baked in the oven. And while one companion laments that, at $18, oysters on the half-shell are too expensive, he shuts up when the plate of fresh raw critters arrives. A spritz of lemon, some hot sauce, and he's a happy guy.
A cheese crisp is a good way to get a meal started. It's a bit different: Layers of large torn pieces of flour tortilla are draped in lots of slightly sour Mexican white cheese, and baked with a small scatter of pico de gallo. I like to follow that with pollo asado, a generous serving of chicken colored red with seasoning and grilled. The bird comes with creamy refrieds draped in white cheese, nice orange-toned rice, a flour tortilla, and a salad of crunchy iceberg, tomato, cucumber and avocado.
1420 N. 24th St.
Phoenix, AZ 85008
Region: East Phoenix
602-275-8565. Hours: Breakfast, lunch and dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 9 a.m. to 1 a.m.
I'd been gushing about my new musical pastime to a friend, who eyed me skeptically. So I wasn't too surprised when he hesitated to join me for a La Casa breakfast one Sunday morning. "The mariachis aren't there now, are they?" he wondered politely.
They're not, although it's not exactly a low-key repast, with the TVs blaring Spanish stations and offbeat music thumping from the speakers (my companion decides we're listening to Mexican children's rap, with a backbeat of instruments from India). Several diners around us are doing quick work on Bloody Marys. Not a bad idea.
We can start the day with cheese enchiladas, cheese chilaquiles (sort of a tortilla casserole), chorizo or ham and eggs, or, my favorite, huevos rancheros. The traditional dish of two eggs over easy (required runny yolks) sits atop two small corn tortillas under a blanket of diced tomato, onion and chile. I make little flour tortilla burritos of egg, refrieds, rice and salad. My companion works his way through an omelet con verde, blended with salsa and cheese.
For all its virtues, La Casa isn't perfect. Its beef is tough and expensive ($9.50 for chewy carne asada, $14.95 for an average quality T-bone with French fries and vegetables). The chips and salsa are boring, with bland corn disks and a sludgy purée. Service is slow, and yes, the tab can be steep.
That said, everybody should come here at least once. Young, old, whatever your nationality. Come for breakfast, lunch, dinner or a late-night snack. Definitely come for the music.