Restaurant review: La Casita

G.A. Benton

It had been one of those days.

I was hoping to put it behind me with an easygoing meal at a fuss-free restaurant, but multiple dinner plans disintegrated. Cut to a scene, late in the evening, where I'm embroiled in a pointless argument while hungry and aimlessly cruising in a rain-splattered car.

Right as a song I hate comes on the radio, a reliable old place flickers in the corner of my eye that could solve my problems. Because if anyone needed a placating combo platter and a fishbowl-sized margarita from La Casita, it was me.

Having not visited La Casita recently, I'd forgotten how accommodating its warmly lit, bustling, wood-paneled confines can be. It's not overly kitschy, but visual overstimulation emanates from those carved, brightly painted wooden chairs and tables — popular in local Mexican restaurants — that recall eye-popping folk art. Upbeat Mexican music at below-conversation volume makes a pleasant soundtrack.

When fresh salsa and just-fried chips appeared almost immediately, my mood appreciably improved. When my usual beverage order arrived — a jumbo Original Margarita ($13) made with Hornitos tequila, Cointreau and fresh lime juice — it tasted nearly as good as I remembered.

Since my last visit, though, the menu had swollen into a huge document with myriad new seafood entries. Scanning through this verbal thicket, I found what I was looking for under “Especialities,” an appropriate header for a dish that straddles Mexican and American cultures. Called — this seemed inevitable — “El Amigo,” it's one of La Casita's priciest items at $19. But it's enormous, I needed it, and I'd be sharing.

The main event is an addictive “sauce” of creamy, melted cheese spiked with crisped, delicious chorizo turbocharging an array of nicely seared proteins: plump shrimp; pounded-thin, tender chicken breast; and pretty good carne asada. On the side are warm tortillas (ask for corn), creamy refried beans, not-bad Mexican rice, pureed avocado, lettuce and pico de gallo. Verdict: Bye-bye bad day and hello leftovers.

At subsequent meals, I also enjoyed strong results when focusing on more affordable items of the kind you'd find at a top-tier taco truck. From this group, I expected the big Torta Ahogada ($9) to be spicier, but the Mexican-style sub was excellent nonetheless.

“Ahogada” means “drowned,” and consequently the entire sandwich — fall-apart carnitas (succulent pork), mayo, guacamole and a terrific toasted telera roll — is plunged into a red chili sauce that, here, is more smoky than fiery. Eat it with a knife and fork unless transforming your hands, face and clothes into expressionist artworks sounds fun.

The recommended Birria ($10) is similarly soulful, zesty and substantial. It's a stew of super-tender, semi-fatty beef chunks in a rich, mild red broth that can be accessorized with limes, diced onion, cilantro, radishes and hot sauce. This could become dinner for two by ordering a hefty, supple and impressive chicken tamale ($3.50) on the side.

Tacos ($3.50 each) are served street-style and don't disappoint. Order three, and it's a “dinner” ($11) with practically free rice and beans; the barbacoa (like the beef in the birria), carnitas and lusty al pastor meats work great.

For something light but not slight, try the well-made Ceviche de Pescado ($4). A large, crisp-and-warm, fried tortilla is loaded with diced tomatoes, onions, carrots and tilapia — the plentiful fish cured to firm and refreshing in a lime-juice bath. Cilantro and sliced avocado are welcome garnishes.

Following the rapid arrival of that tostada — the food shoots out fast — the staff assembled to sing “Happy Birthday” in Spanish to a little kid. Yeah, it was corny, and the efficient servers went back to work quickly afterward. But for a precious short while, everyone in there was smiling.

La Casita Mexican Restaurant

1355 Bethel Rd., Northwest Side