What’s in a name? When it comes to restaurants, I’ve always felt the name of an establishment should reflect its cuisine. If you’re serving Italian food, slap an Italian name on your marquee. If your menu is Chinese, pick a Chinese label – or at least put a picture of a panda in your window to let me know what I’m getting myself into.
Apparently, the people who recently purchased a little Salvadoran restaurant on East Desert Inn Road disagree. When they took over the kitchen at El Guancano, they rechristened it Casa Mexico. In all fairness, as the new name indicates, the restaurant does offer a large Mexican menu. There’s a large selection of burritos ($6.50), tacos ($1), tortas ($5.50) and quesadillas ($6.50). But it also continues to serve a large selection of Salvadoran delicacies not alluded to in the new moniker. And while El Salvador isn’t all that far from Mexico on a map (in case it’s been a while since your last geography class, they’re separated by Guatemala), its cuisine is considerably different. And the failure to draw attention to all of the delicious Salvadoran offerings is a shame. While I know of plenty of places in town serving Mexican food, Salvadoran is a bit more of a novelty. And the stuff being served at Casa Mexico is pretty good.
Casa Mexico isn’t terribly impressive to look at. The modest dining room is decorated with soccer posters. And if I had visited the men’s room before ordering my meal, the stench probably would have convinced me to abandon my quest for pupusas and other Salvadoran delicacies. Fortunately that trip came after I’d eaten and wasn’t able to ruin my appetite.
On the evening my wife and I visited Casa Mexico, we were joined by a chef friend, who was enjoying his day off with a steady diet of video poker, Jack Daniels and weed. (It’s worth noting the bar in Casa Mexico’s strip mall offers two-for-one shots whenever the temperature is over 100.) And as anyone who’s ever attempted to eat with a drunk and/or stoned chef should know, they tend to over-order, especially when the food is reasonably priced. So please don’t consider me a glutton when I report that we tried three types of pupusas ($2 each), a chile rellenos stuffed with pork ($9), a tamale ($2) and a Salvadoran churrasco platter of chorizo, steak, shrimp and vegetables ($12).
If you’ve never eaten Salvadoran food, you need to start with pupusas: thick corn tortillas stuffed with various ingredients. Casa Mexico offers nine varieties, including chicharon (pork), cheese, bean, vegetables and various combinations. We sampled a plain cheese version, one with cheese and pork and, at our waitress’ suggestion, one stuffed with cheese and the Central American vegetable loroco. While they were all good, the loroco was the most interesting. It’s a flowering vine with a very subtle taste reminiscent of asparagus, and it blends perfectly with cheese. Our sweet corn tamale was also excellent, as was the relleno, which consisted of a fresh, crisp pepper stuffed with wonderfully spiced pork.
Our reaction to the barbecue platter was somewhat mixed, however. Everyone agreed that the sausages were far too dry, and the shrimp was fairly unremarkable. But the steak inspired a rather heated debate between my wife and our intoxicated friend. It was thin and very dry – almost closer to jerky than a steak. But it was well-seasoned, and my wife enjoyed it. Our vociferous tablemate, however, was not impressed. I fell somewhere in the middle. It was OK, but with all the other food on the table, I didn’t pay it much attention.
The portion sizes on all of our dishes were impressive, particularly in light of the reasonable prices. And our waitress was very helpful. She patiently explained any unfamiliar dishes, offered recommendations, and smiled when my friend attempted to communicate with her in atrocious Spanish. Our food arrived at the table quickly, and our glasses were never empty.
Overall, despite my disgust with the restroom, Casa Mexico is a nice little restaurant offering good renditions of both Mexican and Salvadoran classics. Just don’t let the name fool you.
Casa Mexico, 3050 East Desert Inn Road, 369-5641. Read more about the Las Vegas dining scene on Al Mancini’s blog, www.almancini.net.