Eat, Drink and Be Mariachi
I have a sudden fascination with mariachi music.
I used to think I hated the stuff, after spending too many years in Rocky Point bars being molested by those wandering "Macarena" minstrels spewing "Guantanamera" over and over and over. Holy mole! One night, I cringed when a ruffled pack of them launched into "Babaloo. " Bad enough. But when I heard the first strains of "When My Baby Goes to Rio," I almost chucked a margarita glass. Once, at the Blue Dolphin -- a restaurant near the fish market -- I actually paid the band to stay far, far away from my table.
Yet suddenly, I love mariachi. Not the crap you hear in tourist traps, but the vibrant, explosive sound that separates the pros from the amateurs. Who knew there was such an incredible difference? What's weird is that to finally hear the authentic noise, I had to leave Mexico and come to central Phoenix.
The revelation came after I stumbled into La Casa del Mariachi late one Saturday night. Music rocked the building, the patrons were whirling. Every so often, someone in the crowd would leap up and grab a mike for an impromptu serenade. The hall spun with a disco ball and streamers fluttered from the ceiling. Meticulously manicured men in cowboy garb pranced, their queens pushed into tight dresses and high heels, giddy for a night out hanging on their fella's arm. It was breathtaking.
Mariachi, of course, the authentic thing, is as much theater as music. It's a symphony of violins, trumpets, a vihuela (small guitar), a guitarrón (large bass-like guitar) and standard guitars. Mariachi musicians look fabulous, with a "charro" (Mexican cowboy) suit of ankle boots, a sombrero, a large bow tie, a chaleco (short jacket), snug trousers with shiny buttons down the side, and a wide belt. The lyrics play like soap operas of sorts, with stories of love, conquest, tragedy and the other human sufferings we all enjoy.
La Casa owner Placido Castellanos is a dedicated mariachi fan, and wants to share the magic of true mariachi with the masses. That's why he opened his dance hall. Castellanos is so into mariachi, in fact, he thinks that mariachi classes should be offered in our public schools. He believes that encouraging students to participate in the trumpet-blowing, guitar-strumming classes would help them feel connected with each other, and thus keep them excited about school. Food for thought, certainly.
And after my night partying with the band, I'm almost thinking I'd go back to high school myself if I could learn this art -- if it didn't mean taking the AIMS test.
Best to consider the notion over dinner. It's a good thing Castellanos serves up such great food, because his frenetic clientele must burn thousands of calories in a single evening of mariachi merriment.
Castellanos' La Casa is, first and foremost, a restaurant, and it's a very good one at that. The music makes it taste even better.
So why did I wait so long to come here? The place has been around for about two years now, housed in a huge palace on McDowell and 24th Street (or N. 24 Calle, as the menu directs in Spanish). I guess it's because it's always looked a bit cartoonish to me, the soaring stucco painted in candy hues of teal, pink and yellow, decorated with patio umbrellas as bright and round as orange gumdrops. Inside, it's pure kitsch, with fake tile "roofs" anchoring the walls, and bright murals (a deliriously domestic señorita feeding her beaming family burritos, a handsome caballero on his rearing horse to the delight of his adoring children, and a landscape of the pastoral "Rancho Castellanos," complete with cows).
The mariachi action takes place in La Casa's Salon Guadalajara, where, from 7 p.m. to 2 a.m. on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, a huge banquet space turns into a dynamic Hispanic bar. The restaurant proper is on one side of the building; the salon on the other. After about 11 on show nights, La Casa's parking lot is overflowing. (I almost got $10 for my vacated space, but the guy I negotiated with was trapped too far behind a long row of cars to make it in. Darn.)
While we're welcome to dine in the bar, it's so crowded and body-shaking loud there I can't concentrate on my campechanas, a gorgeous cocktail of octopus, calamari, shrimp, crab legs, fish, scallops and oysters in tomato-clamato-onion-cilantro juice. Conversation? Ain't gonna happen. Instead, I savor my meals in the quieter cafe area. Closed-circuit televisions beam in the antics of the singers across the hall, anyway. Then I go grab a nice, not-too-sweet margarita and join the fiesta. An important bonus: The bar is smoke-free (no fumar!).
This is no place for a timid gringo, with the wait staff barely muttering any English, unfamiliar dishes like caldo tlapeno, and the only chimichanga to be found is at breakfast. The menu isn't much help, with translations like the Spanish campechanas translated in English to: campechanas. When I ask one waitress what's in a certain soup, she stutters, then whips out a note pad and starts drawing me pictures of grocery items (she can sketch a mean chicken, I must say). When a dish is labeled spicy, it is, and how. My mouth still hurts from a filete de pescado a la diabla I ate a week ago -- the thin fish fillet comes drenched in an ocean of thick, fiery red chile sauce that works full-frontal assault on the inside of my cheeks.
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.
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.
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