ROTTERDAM If you prefer more authentic Mexican cuisine over the fast food variety that’s easy to find today, check out Casa Real, a new restaurant in the Hannaford Plaza on Altamont Avenue.
Yes, you can get tacos, burritos and chalupas here, but you’ll also find a Mexican version of the Spanish classic, paella, and a dish called Molcajete (after the traditional Mexican mortar and pestle), whose ingredients include Mexican cactus.
Our only disappointment was that even though the menu invites you to sample a Mexican beer or frozen margarita, you can’t. They don’t have their liquor license yet, though they’re expecting it soon.
Casa Real — in Spanish that’s “royal house” — had been open only about a month when we visited. Beverly and I dropped by the place — it’s in the former Scarboroughs location — on a weeknight and found a good number of the tables were occupied at dinner time. The place has a Latin look about it — the walls are a shade of orange, like Mexican honeysuckle, and the decorations include old photos of Mexican scenes, including one of some pistol-toting banditos.
WHERE: Hannaford Plaza, 1400 Altamont Ave., Rotterdam. 356-0060
WHEN: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday
OTHER INFO: All major credit cards accepted; handicapped accessible; children’s menu available
Warm tortilla chips
Our server — Jolene — welcomed us with a basket of warm tortilla chips and a bowl of spicy salsa to dip them in as we perused the menu. It is a respectable enough menu in its range of offerings, including a selection of luncheon specialties available from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., daily. The lunch prices are moderate — for example, $5.99 for Huevos Rancheros (ranch-style eggs with Mexican sauce, rice and beans), $4.99 for the Speedy Gonzales (a taco, enchilada and rice or beans) and $5.99 for Tostaguac, Rice and Beans (a flat tortilla covered with beans, beef, lettuce, tomatoes, guacamole and cheese).
We started our meal with a Coctel de Camarones ($12.99). It wasn’t your typical shrimp cocktail, but more like a ceviche served in a goblet with a spicy sauce and lots of small shrimp. It was easily enough for two and won compliments from both of us.
For her entrée, Beverly ordered the Mojarra Frita — a whole tilapia that is deep fried. (My wife is always drawn to a meal that allows her to deconstruct a fish. I think it’s her science teacher background.)
The fish made for a grand presentation, accompanied by Mexican rice, refried beans with queso and a Mexican salad of lettuce and tomato slices. How did she like it? Well, let’s just say there was a nice little fish skeleton on the plate when we were ready for the dessert menu.
For my own main course, I ordered the Paella Mexicana ($15.95), which was served in a little cast-iron skillet. It was a delight to behold and to eat — shrimp, scallops, mussels, fish strips, chicken and chorizo, grilled with onions and bell peppers and served over rice. It wasn’t the paella they make in Valencia, granted, but it was a fine representation, and I would definitely order it again.
Custard in caramel
We concluded our evening at Casa Real with coffee and a shared Mexican flan ($2.99) — a lovely custard sitting in caramel sauce, a sweet and satisfying finale.
The service was excellent. Jolene stopped by several times to answer questions and make sure we wanted for nothing. Our tab for appetizers, dinner and a dessert came to $60.71 with tax and tip, but you can spend less than that. A quick scan of the menu showed that the Molcajete (marinated stirps of chicken, shrimp and chorizo with sautéed onions, bell peppers, tomatoes and Mexican cactus with cheese and a special sauce) was the priciest dish at $16.99. There is a Double Shrimp Fajitas for $28.99, but that’s for two people.
Combination dinners, however, are all priced at $9.99. You can get a taco, two enchiladas and Mexican rice for that, or an enchilada, taco, chile relleno and beans or any of 21 other combinations.
There is also a variety of burritos, a la carte dishes and sides, burritos and enchiladas, seafood, fajitas chicken and steak dishes. And there is a vegetarian combos section offering dishes like a bean burrito, quesadilla and chalupa or two spinach enchiladas with cheese or a mushroom quesadilla with guacamole salad and rice (each priced at $9.99).
There’s a bubblegum machine near the bar at Casa Real, which to me is a jarring incongruity to the otherwise charming appeal of the place. It’s hard to believe a bubble gum machine yields enough revenue to deserve a conspicuous spot in a restaurant that wants to be taken seriously. I say stick it in the foyer or, better yet, just give it the old heave-ho.