1247 C Street, East Village
I sat back and took a sip of my watermelon agua fresca, relaxing in the cool breeze that finally hit San Diego after a brutal, two-month-long heat wave. My friend Desi and I had just finished teaching across the street at City College and, on a lark, decided to have lunch at La Casita Mexican Diner before parting ways to grab our kids. We were enjoying the patio’s transformation from a dingy, AstroTurfed sauna into an airy oasis.
La Casita has been an institution in the East Village for over 30 years. The city has changed, of course, while the diner has, in many respects, remained the same. This has its charms. Previous owners were themselves institutions, and the restaurant reflected their support of the downtown community. I spent many an afternoon there with my colleagues. I used to love the kitschy portraits of ’70s film stars, the crumbling bullfighting posters and dusty sombreros adorning walls and ceiling. The food, however, was only so-so, and I stopped going a few years ago, especially once I began minding my health — an afternoon carne asada burrito from the old Casita could lay you up for hours.
Recently, I heard that La Casita had new owners, and several friends suggested I give it a try. Which was why Desi and I were there.
The first change I noticed was a new paint job. Gone was the old sky-blue: the small, early 20th-century cottage is now a cheery gold with white trim. Inside, the diner has been scrubbed, repainted, and cleared of clutter, and the new kitchen is filled with gleaming appliances. Funky art hangs on the walls, and a Día de los Muertos mariachi guitarist guards the doorway to the patio. Spaces inside and out are bright and inviting.
New owner Eddie Hernandez and his culinary team of Maria and Letty have completely renovated the menu. While standard Mexican items remain — carne asada tacos ($3.30), shredded chicken burritos ($5.75), shredded beef chimichangas ($5.75), cheese enchiladas ($3.30) — there is a host of new and interesting riffs. For example, you can have the usual chorizo and eggs for breakfast, but they also have “Soyrizo con Huevos” ($6.65). There are lots of vegetarian options, including a breakfast burrito made with zucchini, carrots, eggs, and potatoes ($4.95). On the meat side, there’s the “Level 4 Burrito,” made with shrimp, chorizo, guava, and rice ($6.50). You can get mole with meat or vegetables ($7.25), and a sopes combination with either chicken or beef ($6.95).
Paralyzed by the extensive menu, I decided to opt for the #10 combination plate (recommended by a colleague). It came with a chile relleno and a shrimp enchilada ($7.35) and was served on two plates. The ingredients were incredibly fresh — the sauce draped over the giant chile and featured fresh (not canned) tomatoes, onions, garlic, and chilies. Queso blanco oozed from the battered and flash-fried poblano and melded with the sauce. The rice was house-made, fluffy, garlicky, without that stale, clumpy aspect Mexican rice can sometimes have. The refried beans are made fresh all day long, and, in fact, as we were leaving, I saw the cook smashing up a fresh batch. The meal’s sole jarring note was the shrimp in the enchilada, which tasted dry, although the vibrant red sauce, queso fresco, and crema on top mitigated the crustaceans’ chewiness.
Desi ordered the chilaquiles rojo ($6.90), thickly cut tortilla chips fried to order and doused with a smoky, chili-laden sauce. Queso fresco and crema balanced the spicy chips, which held their bite — there’s nothing worse than soggy chilaquiles.
The agua frescas rotate daily. Desi’s cucumber ($1.50) was refreshing and not at all sweet. My agua de sandia contained just a dash of sugar.
The old Casita’s salsa bar has been taken up a notch, with four salsas to try: two reds (one spicy, the other less so but with more smoke); an earthy, bright-green tomatillo and jalapeño; and the Casita special, a pineapple-based salsa with a hint of sweetness. A giant platter of pico de gallo, spicy carrots and jalapeños, and pickled onions is served with complimentary red, green, and white tortilla chips, and while I’m not crazy about multicolored chips, they work here.
The staff is kind and generous. That’s saying something, since there’s usually only two or three people working the whole restaurant. It can get crowded.
On the way out, I noticed that La Casita now serves beer. Chowing down on fresh Mexican fare while hoisting a Corona — music wafting over the patio — that would be a great way to end a busy workweek.
Vibe: Mellow Mexican café with a breezy patio
Fare: Family-style Mexican with robust vegetarian offerings
Seating: 4 booths inside; 12 tables on the patio
Must Try: Chiles rellenos; chilaquiles; chicken sopes