Saving the Best for Last
La Casita Taqueria reviewed
by Lee Lawrence
"Whoa," my brother admonished me when he saw September's review of taquerias. "You may have missed the best." And I've missed it for some time, driving by La Casita Taqueria in a strip mall maze on Washtenaw between Golfside and Hewitt for the last four years without once noticing it.
Well, I've noticed it now, taking particular note of their fresh, authentic quesadillas, fried half moons of thick, hand-made corn tortillas (don't even think flour) filled, in early fall, with seasonal huitlacoche (corn fungus) or flores de calabaza (squash flowers). Huitlacoche--a black, sooty, earthy delicacy that deforms ears of corn--was clearly fresh, not canned, dotted with tender corn kernels and paired with queso fresco (fresh cheese) and shredded lettuce. Even tastier was the squash flower filling, sauteed with a bit of jalapeno. And they're incredibly cheap: those specials start at $2, while the everyday options (cheese, chicken, chipotle chicken, steak, chorizo, pork with poblanos, and picadillo, a ground beef concoction) are all just $1.75.
Though the waitress's astonished face should have warned me, I paired each special quesadilla with a bowl of caldo tlalpeno, not knowing the soup came large enough to be a meal in itself or that the two quesadillas would have sufficed for lunch.
It had been years since I'd eaten caldo tlalpeno. Dipping my spoon into the fragrant soup, I didn't regret over-ordering. La Casita's version overflowed with two whole chicken drumsticks; substantial chunks of zucchini, cabbage, and carrot; and spoonfuls of rice and garbanzo beans in a chipotle-flavored chicken broth. I enhanced the soup with liberal squirts of lime juice, avocado slices, and minced cilantro and onions from the accompanying plate of garnishes. With effort, I managed not to stuff myself silly, eating every crumb of the crispy quesadillas but carrying home half the soup to savor the next day.
Thrilled with the caldo tlalpeno, I tried La Casita's other soups at my next visit. The consomme, a delicious by-product in the preparation
of barbacoa (pit-steamed/smoked lamb), floated succulent hunks of meat in an incredibly flavorful lamb broth. Menudo, a dark red soup from dried chilis and well stocked with slippery bits of tripe, delivered the expected organ-meat punch. Only a lackluster posole, a red version here, disappointed, light on the signature hominy and compromised by tough, dry pieces of pork.
Unlike the taquerias I visited in September, La Casita also features gorditas and sopes--variations, really, in shape and size and thickness, of the quesadillas--corn masa patted out by hand, fried, and filled or topped with meat and garnishes. Drizzled with salsa, all meld the seductive flavors of crispy corn, piquant chilis, and meat juices. Delicious options include tinga de pollo (spicy braised chicken) and chicharron prensado (pork skin, with bits of meat still clinging to it, slow cooked, pressed into a cake, sliced, and cooked again).
Tacos, though not crispy, repeat September's tasty triple play, and La Casita celebrates them with standard and not-so-standard choices. Like Taco King on West Liberty, La Casita serves memorable versions of barbacoa, carnitas (braised, fried pork), carne asada (grilled steak), and puerco al pastor (marinated grilled pork). "Yummy," my mother declared at tasting the lengua (tongue) taco, and we also agreed that the cochinita pibil (marinated, pit-cooked pork) had enough annatto-oregano-garlic seasoning to properly flavor and moisten the meat. My brother and I didn't favor La Casita's tripa (intestine) as much as we had Taco King's, nor did we really enjoy the cabeza de res (shredded bits of beef head), which tasted almost more organ-y than the tripe.
La Casita's menu ranges through enchiladas, tortas, and all the incarnations of filled flour and corn tortillas. Descriptions of entree specials featuring tamales or chiles rellenos or fish line the walls. But another unique menu item I've not seen elsewhere locally is a pambazo, a soft bun filled with potatoes and chorizo or any of the taco fillings, soaked in a mild guajillo chili sauce, and pan-fried--a deliciously decadent knife-and-fork sandwich. It was pillowy in the center but crispy at the edges and suffused with the flavor of chili and meat, and I found it irresistible.
Even more than the taquerias reviewed in September, La Casita is a carnivore's dream, with little to offer vegetarians. Its interior is pretty tired, but the staff, almost constantly supervised by owner Enrique Martinez, is friendly, and the food clearly authentic. Really, between the soups, quesadillas, gorditas, and pambazos, I can hardly decide how to narrow down an order. Like the first time, I'm sure I'll be carrying home leftovers whenever I visit.
La Casita Taqueria
Mon.-Thurs. 11 a.m.-9 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Sun. 10 a.m.-8 p.m.
Breakfast $4.75; tacos, quesadillas, gorditas, sopes $1.59-$2.50; soups $5.95-7.95; entrees $6.50-11.99; sides 50c-$2.99
[Originally published in November, 2012.]