Mexican food has been offered by thousands of restaurants worldwide, and perhaps more than any other cuisine is met with quite polar results. When Mexican food is done right, seasoned with with fresh herbs and peppers, freshly made tortillas and chips, authentic Mexican cheeses, and spicy housemade salsas, there are few things on this Earth that are more beautiful. However, the sad truth is, often the menus offered by many of this country’s Mexican restaurants have deteriorated into a half-hearted conglomeration of sloppy, poorly executed, cheapened versions of their authentic Mexican counterparts. There are so many slapstick versions of “Señor Loco’s Big Burrito Hut” or “The Naughty Donkey’s House of Tacos and Margaritas” that it’s easy to become jaded to the whole Americanized-Mexican culinary scene. But it’s not easy to predict what you’ll get when sampling a newly opened Mexican restaurant, so it’s difficult to stay away for too long. Hence, I found myself entering the doors of La Casa Real. This is the newest addition to the Market Place Shopping Center in west Little Rock, and is brought to us by the same folks operating the La Hacienda restaurants.
Our meal began with a trio of salsas. The first was a standard proprietary blend of red tomatoes, onion, and jalapeño. Although this was a rather routine recipe, we found it to be the most appealing. The next salsa was a spicy green blend heavy with blended jalapeño. The salsa was certainly on the spicy side but fell a little flat in the flavor department, the taste of the peppers overwhelming any other ingredients. Most at our table completely avoided this one. Lastly, we were presented with a warm, stewed blend of tomato and green chilies. This had a hint of sweetness and was a nice change of pace from the other two cold salsas. The chips were thin and crispy with a light coat of oil, in all making the complimentary beginning to this meal a favorable start.
Entrees reached our table next. Of the plates we sampled, some were certainly more successful than others, some left us wallowing in our own pool of mundane Mexican sorrow. I’ve always felt that the crux of any great Mexican establishment is their ability to produce a fine tortilla. Any place willing to put in the extra effort to manufacture their own tortillas automatically scores highly in my sight—it’s only seen in a small percentage of restaurants but I tip my hat to those doing it right. Unfortunately, La Casa Real’s tortillas were rather disappointing. Not even remotely fresh-tasting, the tortillas (both the corn and flour varieties) had the gummy, flavorless profile you’d expect from a bagged brand found at a grocery store…in fact, I’ve eat much tastier tortillas from a grocery store.
The carne guisada was the most successful dish of the night. Guisadas are stewed meats, typically served swimming in a rich, flavorful, aromatic sauce. La Casa Real’s version took bits of serloin, cut into strips and served them in a spicy, peppery blend of green chilies, onions, black peppercorns, and garlic. The sauce was rather tasty but the beef was slightly overcooked and chewy. Still, the dish was woven with interesting flavors, I would not hesitate to eat this one again. We sampled two varieties of deep-fried chimichanga, one filled with ground beef and the other with shredded chicken. While the beef was enjoyable, the chicken was oddly sweet and unappetizing to most in our party. The most grievous aspect of the dish was the thick, goopy layer of Velveeta cheese slopped across the entire surface of the fried chimi which formed an unappealing film across the top of the dish within minutes. We all wished they had held off on the gobs of processed cheese in favor of more sour cream or guacamole. Our chicken enchiladas suffered from the same misgivings I presented above, funky sweetened chicken and sup-par tortillas.