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Up in the Valley 

New Mexican eatery is finding its place.

MEXICAN AL FRESCO: Las Casitas del Valle
  • MEXICAN AL FRESCO: Las Casitas del Valle
The rule of most food reviewers is: When a restaurant opens, it’s announcing it is ready for everyone, including reviewers.

But we’ve been around this business long enough to know that a restaurant may think it’s ready on day one but isn’t, and often it’s going to be a lot better on day 21 or later.

The case in point is Las Casitas del Valle, which wasn’t bad the first day we tried it — during its first week open — but still had a lot of kinks to work out: service, timely delivery of food, seasoning in the dishes, the all-important making of the margarita, the even more all-important understandable menu, etc., etc. Heck, we didn’t even know where to park. The owner of the building, Ed David of the Faded Rose, was letting Las Casitas customers park in his big space across from both restaurants, but it wasn’t painted on the sign yet.

It is now: Park in the big lot. And enjoy a presentation at Las Casitas that is vastly different than the one we encountered on week one.

The pluses in week one were a couple of delicious entrees, and a lot of trying by the waitress, who apparently had every table to herself and was being run ragged. She never buckled. She directed us to a great dish. We Mexican food lovers wanted something a little different than the usual offerings. She suggested the spicy puntas borrachas, which were strips of beef marinated in a special house chipotle sauce (they call it a chile mulato sauce, and we want a bottle of it). We were indecisive though, and wanted some chicken too. Voila, she came back with a plate of both beef and chicken.

If nothing else, Las Casitas is accommodating. The owner and the wait staff are exceeding friendly and are all out to please.

Our dining companion enjoyed her shrimp fajitas, even though she wasn’t blown away by the seasoning. We also had a cheese enchilada a la carte, and it was better than most, with pronounced onion and cheese inside a perfectly rolled tortilla coated on the inside by salsa and covered outside by a thick, floury, cheesy topping and black olive slices.

The white cheese dip was fairly spicy and not too thick, not too runny — and not all white either, tinted with red pepper. The chips are flour tortillas fried in the kitchen, and hold up great for dipping but also fill you up fast.

The guacamole, we regret to say, was thinned by sour cream. We like the chunky, south-of-the-border, no-frills avocado-cilantro-lime-and-maybe-salsa-or-tomato variety. Don’t thin it out, even to keep it from browning, because it masks the avocado flavor. You can buy tubs of the creamed version in the grocery store. Our kid commented about its “alien” color, and with its swirl we though it was dispensed from a soft-serve ice cream machine.

The margarita that night was nearly all tequila, which is hard to complain about, but had little margarita flavor.

Three weeks later, we knew where to park, we met a couple of friends, and had a great experience and encountered a new menu that gringos could read, with full explanations of the dishes. Our enchilada expert, who grades his Mex restaurants on that dish, gave thumbs up to the cheese and meat versions. Another fajita lover liked the beef fajitas with loads of red and green pepper slices and onions.

We expanded our Las Casitas horizons again, going with enmoladas, which are chicken enchiladas covered in mole Puebla-style. While Casa Manana has pretty much dominated in the mole poblano scene around these parts, this was very close. Mole, with its peppery-chocolaty-cinnamon-like flavor, can be a surprise to uninitiated taste buds, but it will grow on you.

The carnitas were fair — tender, but lacking the smoked flavor and subtle spicing we look for.

The margarita was much improved, even rivaling those served at Senor Tequila, which we’d rate No. 1. The gauc seemed a little less self-serve-dispensed this time, but it was still creamed. The cheese dip seemed to have more kick.

We didn’t ask for it, but while we sat around talking and finishing our drinks, the owner delivered two slices of cheesecake for us to try. They were amazing, and probably didn’t even need the chocolate sauce and whipped cream that were piled on top, but we didn’t complain.

So, if your first visit to Las Casitas was in its early days, we’d recommend you return for a second try. If you haven’t been yet, we think you’ll like it. If you have any problems, we’re certain the staff will try to make the experience better for you.

Las Casitas del Valle
1615 Rebsamen Park Road
664-0046
Quick Bite
The menu is as vast as any of the local “authentic” Mexican restaurants. Entrees with tortillas are big enough to feed two. Order a variety and pass them around. Don’t miss the cheesecake.
Hours
10 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Friday; 9 a.m.-10 p.m. Sat.-Sun.
Other info
Parking available across Rebsamen Park Road with Faded Rose, or in back of restaurant. Inexpensive to moderate prices. Credit cards accepted. Full bar.

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