4 years ago I was sitting in one of the courtyards of the Camino Real hotel in Oaxaca along with about 12 other folks, all of us about to embark on a week long culinary experience with Rick Bayless that was being sponsored by the CIA/Greystone. I was chatting with the couple sitting next to me and discovered that the husband was from San Diego. It turned out we went to the same high school (Patrick Henry) and graduated only a few years apart. What was even stranger was that we grew up right around the corner but had to travel 5,000 miles away to a foreign country in order to meet up.
Next month this same couple and I will be doing a week long cooking experience with Diana Kennedy in Zitacuaro, Michoacan. They just happened to be in San Diego this weekend visiting his folks, who still live just 6 doors away from my mother. So we decided to get together, catch up and speculate about cooking with DK. And thanks to jturtle's detective work we decided to have lunch at Casa de Madera. It's on 5th Ave. between University and Washington right across the street from Bombay, Kemo Sabe and the Corvette Diner. Chilangos' may be gone, but it is not forgotten, and Casa de Madera, with an interesting mix of traditional and not-quite-alta concina menu selections, appears to be a worthy successor.
There were several non-alcoholic drinks that sounded really great, like the Mango Spritzer made with mango pulp and club soda, or the Tijuana Taxi made from pineapple, papaya, mango and cranberry juice or even the G3 Shooter and anti-oxident rich combo of Gac fruit and siberian pineapple, not that I know what Gac fruit is ;-). I've never heard of it, there are a couple of typos on the menu and I didn't see that until after I'd left. We all chose margaritas on the rocks and were not disappointed. I suspect they probably do use maggie mix but it wasn't overly sweet and did seem to have some citrus bite to it. In any event, we had no problems whatsoever worrying them down.
Lunch starters range from $8.95 - $10.95 and are really sufficient enough to be a light lunch. More by coincidence than intent, we all ended up ordering off this part of the menu. We started with a plate of quesadillas to accompany our drinks. The quesadillas come 3 to an order and can be had with any one of three filling options, or with one of each. We went for one of each and ended up with chicken tinga, poblano, and hongo. My favorite kind of quesadilla is made from fresh masa, stuffed and then toated on a lightly greased griddle top. The corn gets a thin crispy shell, but the interior remains light, soft and almost creamy. The Casa de Madera quesadillas were not my favorite kind, but to be fair, I haven't, yet, found any place in SD that does them this way. The quesadillas at Casa de Madera were, however, pretty darned good. Each was made from a corn tortilla that was a little thicker than normal, griddled and then folded. The fillings were generous but not overwhelming with the poblano being the consensus favorite. Fresh chiles had been blistered by fire, peeled and then folded into the tortilla with a bit of cheese for a savory, smokey, pleasantly spicy bite with a little crunch. The hongos (mushrooms) were lightly sauteed, their earthiness deliciously enhanced by the chile de arbol table sauce. Tingas are, essentially, stews made from shredded meat, tomatoes, chiles and onions. The chicken tinga quesadilla was the least successful of the 3. The tinga was good but a little uninspired and didn't seem to blend as well with the corn tortillas as the chiles and mushrooms did.
The entree options for lunch are varied beginning with a choice of soups - Totilla, Shrimp Pozole or a cold Cream of Avocado spiked with blue agave tequila, or a traditional Caesar or Spinach salad. The usual suspects - tacos, burritos, enchiladas and chile relleno appear as lunch specials ($7.95 - $12.95), but with a twist. Al pastor tacos aren't pork but marinated salmon and grilled pineapple, enchiladas are green or mole and the ravioli stuffed with huitlacoche (corn smut) and served in a hibiscus (jamaica) and chipotle sauce. But we were still stuck on the appetizer portion of the menu and ended up with Tacos de Nata, Empanadas Frida Kahlo and Sopecitos Yucatecos.
If you're old enough to remember milk bottles with very rich cream at the top, that cream is very close to nata. It's rich, buttery and can add a suave and silken touch to any dish. The menu says these tacos are served enchilada-style, which is to say, they were way more enchilada than taco. Each one was generously stuffed with cubes of chicken breast and then bathed in a tomato based sauce that had been lightened with cream and garnished with yet more cream. The plate was finished with a nice ring of arroz blanco (white rice) and fried plantain. It was a nice, mild plate of enchiladas, though nothing one of the 3 table salsas couldn't perk up. This was my entree and I would order it again, mostly because the portion size was perfect for lunch.
The empanada presentation was striking. The Casa de Madera china is all white; the empanadas, served 4 to an order, on an oblong plate and dressed with an intensely dark mole made a gorgeous contrast between the white plate, dark, almost black mole and crema drizzle. It was a plate that was almost too beautiful to eat. Each empanada had been filled with slightly starchy, slightly sweet plantain which was a good match for the mole. The empanadas had been ordered by the vegetarian in the group and she assured me she enjoyed them.
3 thick masa boats topped with black beans, achiote marinated shredded pork and pickled red onions made up the Sopecitos Yucatecos. This was probably the most substantial dish we ordered and I think it would probably be best as a shared appetizer. Though very good, it was a lot of food.
For the adverturous, there is the Tostada de Pulpo; a herb marinated octopus with cilantro dressing topping a fried tortilla.A quick look at the dinner menu shows most entrees in the $15 - $25 range and fewer of the taco/burrito/enchilada genre and more latitude with the creativity.
The interior of Casa de Madera is dark woods and heavy furniture. It works and is complemented by a wall of running water and colorful Diego Rivera style mural. I like the space and found it warm, inviting and relaxing. Open for only 2 1/2 weeks, Casa de Madera appears to be trying to appeal to a mass cross section of patrons; but, the flavors and concept, if not completely authentic, are close and the quality of everything we had very good. Don't go expecting chips and salsa, giant margaritas or gem-tone colors and folk art, you won't find it. I have been in restaurants in Mexico that looked and felt an awful lot like this one, and the food while not traditionally authentic, is good and can evoke memories of Mexico. If Casa de Madera is trying to fill the void left by Chilango's they may just be successful