Los Angeles has never had a shortage of Mexican restaurants, but over the last few months the city has enjoyed a boom in new high-end concepts that explore the spectrum of Latin-influenced dining.
Among them is Casa , which opened in downtown Los Angeles in January, a “new-Mexican” restaurant with chef Kris Morningstar consulting. By day, Casa is a taqueria of sorts, featuring a menu with updated versions of customizable tacos. By night, the venue transforms into a sleek “modern hacienda,” with a lively indoor/outdoor bar and semi-private booths, called “casitas,” overlooking a fountain on the patio.
“Our goal was to have food that’s cost accessible, but well-done,” says Morningstar, whose experience includes stints at acclaimed Los Angeles venues such as Grace, Patina and Blue Velvet. “We wanted to bring in things that are known as well as things that are less utilized in most American versions of Mexican food.”
For the classically trained Morningstar, whose own culinary background is more rooted in French and Italian traditions, the project has been an adventure, requiring trips to Mexico and poring over cookbooks in Spanish to capture certain rustic and “soulful” elements of Mexican cuisine.
At lunch, for example, when the average check ranges between $10 and $13, the menu focuses on the various taco options, with guests choosing how they want it served.
Taco “vehicle” options include house-made corn tortillas, or “huarache,” a masa flatbread with black-bean puree. Alternately guests can choose burrito-style or have their “fillings” over salad.
Filling options include such combinations as citrus-marinated chicken breast with guacamole, salsa, cilantro, onions and cabbage; or marinated prime steak with onions and peppers, queso fresco and adobo sauce.
One of the most popular is the “al pastor” filling, featuring marinated spit-roasted pork with tomatillo-avocado sauce, sesame seeds and cilantro. Three tacos cost between $7.75 to $8.95. Morningstar says he also plans to add a three- or four-course fixed-price menu at lunch, as a more full-service option.
The dinner menu, with an average check in the mid $30 range, broadens to include such appetizers as lobster cigars with chile verde salsa and such main courses as pork and beef meatballs with smoky tomato sauce and queso cotija; swordfish with cactus paddles, pickled onions, shiitake mushrooms and ancho chile escabèche; and braised rabbit with chestnuts, roasted cauliflower, cinnamon, chile ancho, almonds and raisins.AT A GLANCE
Location: 350 South Grand Avenue, Two California PlazaWebsite:
The rabbit, says Morningstar, was one of Casa’s “more interpretive dishes,” using a French technique but authentically Mexican flavors. “We learned that chestnuts are actually indigenous to the Tabasco region of Mexico, so it works.”
The bar boasts a list of tequilas and mescals as well as Mexican-themed cocktails, such as the hibiscus mar-“tea”-ni, made with orange liqueur and hibiscus tea syrup; or the smoky margarita made with scotch and rimmed with house-smoked salt.
From 10 p.m. to midnight, however, the restaurant features a “taco truck” menu, again focusing on the upscale tacos to draw the post-theater crowd. Casa is located in the Bunker Hill section of downtown Los Angeles, near The Museum of Contemporary Art and the Walt Disney Concert Hall.
The restaurant is owned by Mario Del Pero, managing partner of the Mendocino Farms “eco-artisan” sandwich concept, also in downtown Los Angeles.DINNER MENUCeviche of red snapper with cucumber, tomatillo, red onion and cilantro$8Lightly cured shrimp, red onion, arbol chile, grapefruit and mint$9Quesadillas: corn masa stuffed with hen of the woods mushrooms, spicy onions, queso Oaxaca and pumpkin-seed sauce$10Lobster cigars with chile verde salsa$12Tacos de barbacoa: beef short rib, cilantro, cumin, radish, goat cheese and crema$9Tacos de Lengua: beef tongue, chile ancho-raisin salsa, toasted almonds and marjoram$9Otono salad: persimmon, jícama, pecan, watercress, queso with agave nectar vinaigrette$8Sopa de tortilla: chicken, guajillo chile, avocado, cilantro and crispy corn tortillas$5Pollo en mole poblano: braised chicken leg in dark mole, roasted parsnips and sesame seeds served with fresh corn tortillas$11Chile Relleno: house-made chorizo and date-stuffed poblano chile with pecan sauce$12Lobster, mussels, red snapper, hominy and chayote in spicy chile broth$15Grilled octopus, fingerling potatoes, citrus and herb salad$12Braised rabbit, chestnuts, roasted cauliflower, cinnamon, chile ancho, almonds and raisins$16Tamal de borrego: roasted lamb, green olives, mint and salsa$12