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At Casa Azul, fine Mexican at the heart of Buffalo

At Casa Azul, fine Mexican at the heart of Buffalo

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There are a lot of dead ends in the restaurant business. Pretty places that pop up looking promising, even producing delicious food until the owner runs out of money, faith in the enterprise or both.

Getting to witness the metamorphosis of an operator from a food truck rookie to a restaurateur capable of not only cooking delicious food, but running a fully staffed and operational restaurant is as rare as hen’s teeth.

So there’s an extra ration of satisfaction in showcasing Casa Azul, the Mexican-inspired restaurant and bar at the corner of Allen and Elmwood, the former Cantina Loco space. Owner Zina Lapi has come a long way from her first foray into the Buffalo food scene, the arancini-focused truck Blue Balls Bus.

After a few years on Genesee Street, Lapi secured a much bigger space in the heart of Allentown, opening in January. Lapi has Seabar and Yoshi alum Ken Legnon heading the kitchen, Jess Wright managing service and Danny Licker running the bar. (Yes, that’s his real name.)

Noticeable changes from renovations include being able to hear people at your table in a room that had previously exhibited the sonic characteristics of a basement death metal show.

Working from a redesigned kitchen, Lapi's crew is serving compelling dishes and smashing cocktails. Now that the 75-seat patio is open, with its own bar, Casa Azul is ready for prime-time summer season.

Patio bar at Casa Azul

Casa Azul has outdoor dining with a bar.

What will you drink? Consider margaritas ($10) in cucumber-cilantro-jalapeno, watermelon basil or avocado honey, with a black lava salt rim. Cocktails ($12) like the pineapple negroni and Poblano Plane, made with charred poblano-infused bourbon, add tasty wrinkles to old favorites.

There’s also a veritable library of tequila and mezcal, some oddball delights like prickly pear spirit ($9) and 10 taps of beer and cider from near and far.

Cocktails at Casa Azul

Cocktails at Caza Azul, 191 Allen St., from front left are the pineapple negroni, poblano plane, passionfruit margarita, and in back from left are the mule and cucumber jalapeno cilantro margarita. 

The food is what really got me, though.

Queso fundido ($12), made with chihuahua and queso fresco cheeses, stretches like a dream before you wrap it around the tortilla chip for safe eating. That’s because real cheese gives you strings, unlike queso dip, which offers the smoothest sauce scientists can conjure up, straight out of the can.

Even the plain cheese is indulgent, dressed with habanero pickled onions, a drizzle of honey and candied toasted pumpkin seeds. You can add an egg or taco meats (an additional $2-$5). The bronze crust of caramelized cheese you peel off the pan last might be the best part.

Queso fundido at Caza Azul

The queso fundido at Caza Azul is made with Chihuahua and queso fresco cheese, habanero onions, honey drizzle, candied pepitas and house chips. 

Charred Caesar ($12), a gutsy combination of charred Brussels sprouts and cauliflower, is enriched with cotija cheese, charred chile dressing and toasted pumpkin seeds for a hearty vegetarian plate.

Taquitos ($14) are housemade corn tortillas filled with braised pork and cabbage, then fried to a crisp. Served with a racy charred jalapeno aioli and green chile sauce, they're finger food with heart, taking advantage of the fresh housemade tortillas made by a specialist each shift.

Tacos come in threes ($14), in a full range of satisfying choices from vegan to carnivore.

Trio of tacos at Caza Azul

The trio of tacos from left is shrimp, al pastor and Brussels sprouts. The cocktail is the mule.

Chicken is confited thighs, not the usual chalky chicken breast, topped with herbed salsa and crunchy chicken skin chicharrones. Al pastor, chile marinated pork with pineapple, is sliced off a vertical spit, the traditional manner, which few restaurants here bother with.

Fried shrimp with sweet-spicy chamoy sauce, and fish with herb aioli, emerge still crispy under marinated onions.

Charred Brussels sprouts tacos have been a surprise top seller, a testament to Casa Azul’s determination to make vegan offerings that go far beyond perfunctory. Roasted cauliflower and shishito chile tacos are vegan, and a potato-poblano taco with pepitas, crema and cotija can be made so.

Three custom salsas include the fresh chopped tomato-onion-jalapeno-cilantro pico de gallo, a charred salsa where the chiles, onions, tomatoes and other ingredients are charred on a plancha before being incorporated into the salsa, and one based on smoked guajillo chiles and pineapple.

Acapulco shrimp ceviche at Caza Azul

The Acapulco shrimp ceviche is tomato and citrus macerated shrimp with jalapeño, cilantro and radish. The cocktail is a pineapple Negroni.

Acapulco shrimp ceviche ($14) splits the difference between American shrimp cocktail and Mexican shrimp ceviche with jumbo poached shrimp arrayed in a spicy tomato broth.

The big plates go yard.

Enchiladas stuffed with black beans, cheese and roasted poblano chiles are covered in homemade mole verde ($17) of surpassing depth and complexity. What a savory orchestra: chiles, garlic, epazote, Mexican oregano, nuts, dried fruit, spices on a pepita base, each forkful an expanding mystery.

Housemade mole verde at Caza Azul

The housemade mole is an enchilada stuffed with black beans, cheese and poblano, smothered with housemade mole verde. The cocktail is a pineapple Negroni. 

Cod ($19) brushed with black garlic sauce is simmered in poblano corn “chowder” lightly enriched with a dash of cream. It emerges still brothy, bedazzled with crunchy coin-sized fingerling potato chips, scallions and cilantro oil.

Cod in poblano chowder at Caza Azul

The pescado at Caza Azul is black garlic brushed cod with poblano, "corn chowder," pepitas, fingerling crisps, cilantro oil and scallion.

Sweets include churros ($8), doughnut batons drizzled with dulce de leche caramel and dusted with cinnamon sugar.

Churros at Caza Azul

These are the churros drizzled with dulce de leche at Caza Azul. 

Casa Azul offers fine dining. Not in the classic white tablecloth, bow-tied waiter definition, but in the larger sense: a meal that makes you glad to be alive.

Perhaps you won’t agree that it’s the best Mexican-inspired restaurant in Buffalo.

Fine.

But tell me you can find a more compelling stretchy cheese experience than at Casa Azul, and I will insist you have a queso mistaken identity.

Taquitos at at Caza Azul

The taquitos are braised pork and cabbage stuffed with charred aioli, shredded lettuce and green chili sauce. 

Casa Azul

191 Allen St., casaazulbuffalo.com, 716-331-3869

Hours: 4 to 11 p.m. Monday, Tuesday and Thursday; 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday; and 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday. Closed Wednesday.

Prices: starters, $5-$14; entrees, $14-$19.

Atmosphere: amiable cantina

Parking: street

Wheelchair accessible: yes

Gluten-free: many choices

Outdoor dining: full service patio

Send restaurant tips to agalarneau@buffnews.com and follow @BuffaloFood on Instagram and Twitter.

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