Casa Mexico 

It was a windy Saturday in January, high noon on the high desert. My companion and I had journeyed far along sandy Overland to a place called Vinnel Way, in search of that elusive creature, authentic Mexican food. Oh sure, we could have found hominy aplenty, had we ventured to Caldwell, but we were looking for more than a full belly. This was a quest for the soul food of the American West in the heart of suburbia. What we found left us ready for a well-deserved siesta. From our vantage point in the vast parking lot, I could see that this was a restaurant unintimidated by its surroundings--ready to hold its own against the acres of fast-food chains and big-box stores that pop up in this desert town like mushrooms out of manure. Yes, this Casa Mexico had its own life; it was not simply a carbon copy of its five cousins (such as the basement oasis I know from Hyde Park). As my sister and I walked in the door, we were greeted by the subtle strains of Latin pop music; a hospitable, dark-haired young hostess led us to our capacious booth.

But the story of our meal really begins with corn chips. The moment we were seated, a maternal server set down a generous basket of warm chips. They taste freshly made, and are accompanied by a plastic mini-mocahete of simple salsa. (No mamby-pamby mango-cilantro nonsense here.)

Although the menu offers plenty of interesting-looking seafood and vegetarian options, we agreed to stay traditional. We started by dressing up our complementary chips and salsa with a side of guacamole, which my sister loved (I found myself pouring salt on it, wishing for a bit more lemon juice).

We wanted as much variety as possible, so we agreed to share two large combination plates. These two sombrero-sized platters not only provided us with six different items (plus red rice and refried beans), but they also provided enough leftovers to make my brother-in-law a very happy man.

My favorite dish by far is the shredded pork enchilada; a secret ingredient wrapped up along with the tender meat made us both wish for more. Another taste of heaven is the chili relleno, the mild green chili stuffed with just the right amount of jack cheese, then cloaked in a thin skin of egg batter. My sister loved her first bites of the shredded beef tostada, but by the time I got my share, the tortilla was no longer crisp--just a soggy mass of masa. There was no such mishap with the pleasantly piquant ground-beef taco, which managed to keep its snap to the end. The spinach enchilada, which I ordered on a whim, comes drenched in a bland cream sauce. This may be a good option for tender-tongued guests (who are also offered such hearty American dishes as New York steaks and grilled chicken burgers), but my sis and I agreed we preferred the standards. Not surprisingly then, the shredded beef tamale, topped with just the right amount of red sauce, made us both nod our heads and chew a bit slower. I felt virtuous having forgone the generously proffered second basket of chips, as this left room for dessert--flan, a delicious vanilla egg custard topped with caramelized sugar sauce and baked with a layer of cinnamon.

While the couple in the next booth was disappointed to not find menudo on the menu, other diners seemed more than satisfied. With treats like chicken mole, chile verde and picadillo available, I think that the absence of tripe on the menu can be forgiven. All in all, my dining companion and I were both happy to have ventured out to Vinnel Way.

--Gretchen Jude thinks cows should just hold their tongues.

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