Is there still a place in the American restaurant scene for hometown mom and pop institutions? According to the Nation’s Restaurant News, a respected trade magazine, almost fifty percent of the 100 largest chains saw flat or declining growth rates in sales in 2006. Those rates are largely attributed to the sheer volume of restaurant concepts (chains) cluttering the landscape.
I like to think that another reason for the decline of the ubiquitous chains that blight American streets is the increasing realization among the dining public that better food, value and service can be found in mom and pop dining establishments. La Casita Cafe in Bernalillo is one restaurant validating that contention as evidenced by the overflowing throngs that consider it a favorite dining destination.
La Casita is a local institution, beloved by Bernalillo residents and Albuquerque diners who don’t mind driving a few miles for generous portions of good New Mexican food at reasonable prices.
Family owned and operated since 1982 by Bernalillo residents Donna and John Montoya, La Casita was destroyed by fire in July, 2005. It took nearly two years before it would open again. The restaurant’s re-launch in June, 2007 was a day for celebration for dining patrons eager to renew their acquaintance with some of their favorite New Mexican staples as La Casita prepares them.
Entering the premises, those faithful flocks may have thought they were in a different restaurant altogether–and in a sense they were. La Casita underwent a complete refurbishment. Esthetically and functionally, it is almost entirely different from its predecessor.
The original La Casita Cafe proudly celebrated its Bernalillo heritage by displaying framed posters, all painted by local artists, of all the Bernalillo Wine Festivals held since that event’s inception. The new La Casita is less colorful by design. Its earth-tone and wood exterior is intended to complement the neutral color scheme of other businesses along Camino del Pueblo.
The restaurant is more expansive than the original structure and includes two distinct dining rooms. A large foyer comfortably accommodates patrons on the inevitable waiting list though weather permitting, it seems most prefer waiting on the capacious porch.
A mosaic design on the foyer’s multi-hued earthen tile and faux Anasazi stonework lend to the Southwestern ambience. The visual centerpiece in the main dining room seems to be a reddish Kiva fireplace. Wrought-iron designs festoon the walls while tables and chairs include the sunburst design so prominent in Spanish furniture crafted in New Mexico.
Service is attentive and amiable. Best of all, salsa is complementary with your first bowl arriving just shortly after you’re seated. It’s salsa with a bite, maybe not enough to bring a glisten to your brow, but enough to awaken your taste buds. The chips are fresh, crisp and lightly salted.
The menu is replete with New Mexican food favorites, both traditional and contemporary. Appetizers include jalapeno cheese poppers served with Ranch dressing, a non-traditional offering that has been popularized by a pseudo Mexican chain. All plates are garnished with lettuce, tomato and cheese unless you request otherwise. Plates also include rice, beans and two sopaipillas.
La Casita’s create your own combo gives diners a lot of flexibility to craft a plate featuring either two, three or even four of their favorites from among cheese and onion enchiladas, chicken enchiladas, a side of carne adovada, chicken taco, green chile chicken tamale, ground beef enchilada, chile relleno, ground beef taco or red chile pork tamale. The only restriction to this cart blanche is that the enchiladas must be rolled.
There’s even flexibility in the enchilada offering. The enchilada plate features three corn tortillas, rolled or flat, filled with your choice of cheese and onion, ground beef, chicken or a combination of the three. Best of all you can have your enchiladas Christmas style with both red and green chile. All three enchiladas are good, especially if you love cheese. The plate is crowned with melted strands of Cheddar cheese. It even blankets the beans and rice.
Entrees at La Casita are served hot–as in steaming on the plate. This always earns extra points from me. In terms of piquancy hot, the red chile is only mild. The green generally has more bite. A “heat” indicator is one of the first things you see when you walk in so you’ll know just what to expect from the chile.
Alas there is one entree we haven’t found particularly exciting. Sadly it’s La Casita’s carne adovada which is overpowered by a spice I believe is Mexican oregano. There’s so much of it, my dining companion asked if crushed peppercorns were part of the restaurant’s recipe for carne adovada. What would otherwise be a very good, well marinated and extremely tender adovada is rendered difficult to eat by the almost bitter aftertaste imparted by the potent spice.
Another dish which could be better is the stuffed sopaipilla plate served Christmas style. As shown in the image above, both the red and green chile are almost soupy in their liquidity. So is the Spanish rice which practically swims in a tomato sauce. The whole pinto beans, on the other hand, are quite good as is the seasoned ground beef and bean combination engorging a single rounded sopaipilla. There are many options with which you can stuff the sopaipilla, including carne adovada. The sopaipilla, as with several entrees at La Casita, is topped with enough cheese to keep a family of mice happy for a month.
There are many good reasons La Casita Cafe has been welcomed back by Bernalillo dining patrons and not all of them are reflected on the menu. La Casita is like home only you don’t have to cook or do the dishes. It’s owned by people you might want as friends and neighbors and it serves much better food than you’ll find in most chains. Welcome back, La Casita.
La Casita Cafe
567 Camino del Pueblo
Bernalillo, New Mexico
1st VISIT: 5 October 2007
LATEST VISIT: 25-April-2010
CLOSED: April, 2013
# OF VISITS: 3
BEST BET: Salsa and Chips, Sopaipillas, Combination Enchilada Plate