Casa Cocina and Cantina, the Mexican restaurant in California Plaza in downtown Los Angeles (across the courtyard from Starry Kitchen), recently got a new chef and a revamped menu. I was recently invited to check it out and despite my initial misgivings due to the shnazzy corporate look and location, I left a believer in chef Alex Moreno.
Its always a pleasant surprise when someplace exceeds your expectations and beginning with his Quesadilla de Hongos (mushroom quesadilla), CASA did so. The quesadilla (above) is fresh corn masa stuffed with red wine-braised wild king trumpet and chanterelle mushrooms and queso fresco, finished with radish and tomatillo salad. For me this was the best dish of the evening and one I couldn't stop eating or thinking about, and as someone who doesn't usually enjoy or get excited about mushrooms, that says a lot. This is a dish that could make a meat-lover forget about meat.
Moreno (pictured above) spent a number of years as a rock and roll chef, in his role as personal chef to Van Halen and Sammy Hagar on their tours. Hagar fell in love with Moreno's Mexican food and "he wanted me to cook my Mexican food for him every night," Moreno said. Following his tour of duty on the road, Hagar asked him to join his Mexican restaurant Tres Agaves in San Francisco, from which he was recruited to join CASA this summer. Moreno is a native Angeleno and trained under Josiah Citrin at Melisse in Santa Monica, so he is excited to be back in his hometown cooking Mexican food with his French skills and using top of the line meats and produce.
My other favorite dish of the night was the Braised Beef Short Rib Birria. The use of braised short ribs elevates the rustic dish without compromising the rich flavors. Moreno uses chile cascabelle braised beef short rib garnished with Cypress Grove goat cheese-stuffed peppers served with a warm flour tortilla. The broth was poured tableside; an elegant flourish. The broth was aromatic and full of a deep rich flavor, a savory soup I drank after I finished eating the short ribs.
Several dishes included tableside service or unusual touches, like the four salsas (above) presented with Jaime's Chicken Burrito, which is served in three pieces and is filled with shredded chicken, sushi rice and quesillo (Oaxacan style cheese). Both the sushi rice and the four salsas (applewood bacon and black bean puree, summer corn pico de gallo with smoky tomato salsa, habanero green chili and housemade crema) twists that added an element of surprise and visual appeal to the dish. The Nacho's Madre's Nachos appetizer also is presented with three tiers of crispy tortillas, covered with melted cheese, beans, barbacoa, pico, guacamole etc but it is cut tableside with a large knife. These elements of drama add a bit of fun and whimsy to the meal.
There is a happy hour on Monday - Friday afternoons from 4:30 - 6:30 with $17 pitchers of margaritas and $6 tacos (for 2). On Tuesdays tacos are only $2. The ambiance is upscale but comfortable and the outdoor seating (pictured above) is dramatic. The mushroom quesadillas are an essential order. Just don't go asking the chef to sing a cover of Why Can't This Be Love.
CASA is located at 350 South Grand St. (California Plaza) in Downtown LA. There is an underground lot and CASA validates. Phone: (213) 621-2249 Website: CasaDowntown.com