Several months ago, Aaron inquired as to whether anyone had eaten at the tidy little Mexican restaurant called Las Cazuelas at the corner of Lawrence and Elston. Although only one person had eaten there who responded to the thread, the group as a whole seemed to decide that it wasn't a good place based on the fact that the= restaurant's website had an offensively stereotypical cartoon Mexican as its Mascot.
I pass Las Cazuelas daily on my way to and from work. It is regularly filled on the weekends and that fact piqued my interest in it. I have had dinner there on a couple occasions since. As Gary noted once before, it is an old school restaurant. There's nothing earth shattering about the menu served except that, in my two visits there, it has been well prepared.
First, let's start with the menu. There are actually two which you are handed by your waiter. One is the "special menu" (and expensive)which the owner purportedly puts together daily based on what he finds at the market. The other is a more standard (and less expensive) menu that focuses on traditional (in the Mexican-American sense of traditonal) Mexican dishes such as burritos, tacos and enchiladas.
On both of my visits, I have focused almost exclusively on the specials menu.
Salsa: Las Cazuelas makes an excellent not too spicy but flavorful salsa in house that is served with warm tortilla chips upon arrival.
Margaritas: I ususally don't drink Maragaritas at restaurants because what you seem to get from the average bar is so universally disappointing. However, I was inspired to order one on one of my trips to Las Cazuelas. It was an excellent Margarita redolent of fresh lime juice and good tequila.
Appetizers: On my first visit, the kitchen offered a special of a fresh lobster salad wrapped in a warm flour tortilla. It was an excellent dish. The fresh cold lobster was only enhanced with a little cilantro and a citrus marinade type dressing. The marinade was a perfect compliment to the cold shellfish. It wasn't spicy. But, it was very good. Think a lowfat lobster roll. On my second visit. I chose an appetizer of queso fundido, melted mexican cheese topped only with a little cilantro and some small dots of chorizo. The queso was served with warm corn tortillas which appeared to rival the store bought tortillas you'd find in your average Jewel. It was a tasy, but very filling appetizer.
Entrees: On my first visit, I chose the very pricey ($20) Tilapia Vera Cruz. Tilapia is a dull fish. However, I thougt that the spicy sauce Vera Cruz would liven it up a bit. I was wrong. The entree came to my table on this huge glass fish platter with all of the components separated. A little pile of fish, a little pile of Sauce Vera Cruz(with chunks of green squash!!??) and little piles of shredded Iceberg, chunk tomato, and mexican rice all worthy of the 9.95 combination plate at Chi Chi's.
My fish was cooked perfectly and napped (once again) in a sauce of reduced mango and orange juice. A bit of a surprise considering that I was expecting the spicy sauce of tomatoes, cilantro and garlic described on the menu. The "vera cruz" was dull tasting more like an italian ragout than a lively Mexican sauce.
On my second visit, at my waiter's suggestion, I chose the enchiladas made with grilled portabello mushrooms and a very decent mole. It was a good dish. But hardly earth shattering. Again, the flavors of the dish didn't shine through as I have come to expect at other upscale Mexican places.
The kitchen brews its coffee uniquely grinding a hint of cinnamon in the brew. It's a nice addition. But, like most things at Las Cazuelas, hardly earth shattering.
Las Cazuelas is a place that I really want to like. But, I can't. It's also a place that does enough things right that I really can't hate it either.
It will neither knock your socks off nor will it offend you. It is a place that I would dine if I lived in the neighborhood. But, there's no real attraction that would take me all the way out to Elston and Lawrence with so many other good Mexican places between my house and there.
The service at Las Cazuelas is extremely attentive and friendly though, on both of my visits, the staff was unable to give me hearty recommendations as to what was great on the menu.
For $40 a head on a weeknight dinner, I simply expect more than Las Cazuelas delivers.