If all you ever wanted from Mexican food is a vast platter of meat with rice and beans smothered in cheese, area Mexican restaurants have you covered.
Those who want more from their Mexican, though, are left quietly pining. They miss things taken for granted in Mexican neighborhood restaurants elsewhere. Fresh corn tortillas bearing well-seasoned meat crisped to order on a flattop, ceviche of the day, agua fresca fruit drinks, tamales. There is a mole-shaped hole in their appetites.
To those people, I say: courage. The famine is easing. The Mexican landscape has flowered considerably in the last two years, with the addition of straight-up taquerias and other taco specialists. The latest bloom is Casa Azul. Its tacos are bespoke, daintier than taqueria standards, but deliciously detailed.
It gets better: At Casa Azul, tacos are just the beginning of the Mexican thrills.
Zina Lapi, Diana Parra Gonzalez and her brother Victor, who also runs the West Side modern Mexican spot Las Puertas, opened the place in December. The space is the shipping container spot downtown on Genesee Street that was last Dog e Style. It's added a dozen dishes and a full bar with custom cocktails, so it's ready for its close-up.
Order at the first-floor counter for lunch and watch cooks make your food in the open kitchen. Or head upstairs for dinner, where you may sit at the bar or at tables where servers will attend to your needs.
Choose among a dozen intricate tacos. Each comes on a house-made corn tortilla griddled until it puffs, then topped with well-seasoned toppings. I'd make a meal of three, but two would do if one was the fish. It's $6, while the others are $2.50-$4.75. Deftly fried filet with tempura-light crust gets salsa verde, avocado cream and pickled onions accents justifies the premium.
Choosing the others might not be easy. The chicken taco is made of dark-meat chicken braised in fat then crisped on the grill, for an outstandingly moist, flavorful chicken taco ($3). It also gets avocado cream, herbed salsa verde and crunch from fried chicken skin.
That level of detail is reflected through its taco lineup. Favorites include pork belly ($3), crisped to order, glazed with habanero salsa, plus black bean queso and pickled onions.
Carne asada ($4.75) starts with marinated steak that’s grilled, leaving a wisp of pink inside, chopped and topped with salsa, radish and cilantro. Al pastor ($2.75), chile-marinated pork, is shaved off a vertical roaster and offered with pineapple, onion and cilantro.
In taqueria fashion, customers can adjust their tacos with a toppings bar, with three salsas that vary from gently warming to blowtorch. There's also radishes, limes, pico de gallo and two kinds of pickled onions.
Vegetarian tacos abound in Mexico. Casa Azul offers two decent options: potatoes with roasted poblano peppers ($3), finished with cream and spiced nuts, and one of squash stewed with tomatoes ($2.50), finished with cotilla cheese, epazote and candied pumpkin seeds.
Adventurous choices include tender, dankly lamblike braised goat ($5) and crispy fried sweetbreads ($4.50) with spicy aioli, whose accompaniments overshadowed its mild creaminess.
My prescription would be two tacos and a plate. Choose which roots Mexican craving needs to be sated first. Those longing for mole, the intriguingly complex spicy-sweet sauce made from chiles, nuts, spices, chocolate, dried fruit and more, should ask for the chicken enchilada ($12).
My preferred dose of mole is a blue-plate special, a sea of mole over meat, with rice and beans, and a stack of tortillas. Casa Azul's has a smaller mole payload, but it still destroys the target, covering tortillas sandwiching grilled chicken, with crunch from spicy peanuts.
Another essential Mexican flavor found here is tamales ($12), a pair of fluffy steamed corn dough lozenges stuffed with vegetables, sliced and served with tangy, floral salsa verde. Another vegetarian-but-good-for-all dish is escabeche ($12), pickled and roasted vegetables with smoky chipotle cheese and rice "chicharron" crackers.
The most gloriously filling dish is Chihuahua cheese baked in cast iron until browned belowdecks and oozy on top, piled with al pastor pork or grilled chicken ($10) or roasted and pickled cauliflower and spicy peanuts ($9) and a stack of tortillas. One miss on my visit was the chorizo with egg ($15), surprisingly bland for a sausage skillet.
Chunky guacamole flavored with judicious doses of lime, tomato, onion and serrano chile ($9) was accompanied by plenty of tortilla chips – and a triangle of cricket brittle. Turns out crickets are nutty, and eating them suspended in candy was easy even though it reminded me of prehistoric-insects-in-amber story once glimpsed in National Geographic. (You can get the brittle on the side or decline it, as well.)
The only other sweet on the food menu was churros ($8), a foot-long squiggle of piped doughnut in cinnamon sugar and housemade atole ice cream.
Non-alcoholic drinks like watermelon-mint agua fresca ($3) and milkshakes in flavors like spicy chocolate ($4.50) are worth exploring. Once you get beyond a fresh-squeezed house margarita ($9) alcoholic choices include micheladas or flavored beer drinks such as tepache ($7) which is flavored with fermented pineapple, ginger oil and tequila.
For all its achievements, Casa Azul does not yet fill the place of a Mexican neighborhood restaurant. Bigger servings and lower prices would make it less of a boutique operation. But we can only eat at the restaurants we have. Even though its name translates to House of Blue, Casa Azul makes my outlook rosier.
Casa Azul – 8 plates (out of 10)
Mexican flavors in tidy, tasty packages.
Where: 128 Genesee St. (331-3869)
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to midnight Friday, Saturday.
Price range: Tacos $2.50-$6, plates $8-$15.
Wheelchair access: First floor only
Gluten-free options: Most of the menu.