Review

More than enchiladas, but the enchiladas are awfully good

CorrespondentMarch 28, 2013 

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    La Casa de las Enchiladas

    815 W. Chatham St., Cary

    919-798-9775

    Cuisine: Mexican

    Rating: * * *  Prices: $-$$

    Atmosphere: inviting hodgepodge of Mexican folk art and vintage Americana

    Noise level: low to moderate

    Service: friendly and eager to please

    Recommended: enchiladas, burritos, sopes, pambazos, huitlacoche quesadilla

    Open: Lunch and dinner daily, breakfast/brunch Saturday-Sunday.

    Reservations: accepted

    Other: beer and liquor (no wine); accommodates children; limited vegetarian selection; patio; parking in lot.

    The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: *  *  *  *  *  Extraordinary *  *  *  *  Excellent. *  *  *  Above average. *  *  Average. *  Fair.

    The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $16. $$$ Entrees $17 to $25. $$$$ Entrees more than $25.

Don’t let the name fool you. La Casa de las Enchiladas is about way more than just enchiladas.

And it certainly isn’t a Tex-Mex eatery, though it’s located in Cary, where “Mexican” and “Tex-Mex” have historically been pretty much synonymous.

Nor is it a taqueria, strictly speaking, though the menu does offer a variety of tacos on house-made soft corn tortillas, which you can garnish from a salsa bar that rivals that of any taqueria in the Triangle.

Unlike the typical counter-service taqueria, here you’ll get full table service in a dining room that’s modestly but invitingly furnished with a hodgepodge of Mexican folk art and vintage Americana.

In fact, La Casa de las Enchiladas isn’t quite like any other restaurant you’ll find in these parts. Where else can you get a quesadilla - the real deal, mind you, made with a rustically thick corn tortilla - generously filled with clumps of huitlacoche (a corn fungus with an earthy, almost truffle-like aroma) and corn? Or with flor de calabaza (squash blossom), another classic delicacy?

You can get most of the taco filling options – nine of them, including all the usual taqueria suspects from asada to pollo to lengua (beef tongue) – stuffed inside a gordita, a thick corn tortilla that lives up to its “little fat one” moniker. Or piled onto a sandal-shaped huarache or a sope, where it’s topped with lettuce, tomato and shredded queso.

Or even rolled inside a burrito, which are here not the massive cylinders you find at Chipotle and its ilk but traditional Mexican burritos of more modest (but still ample) proportion, draped with a savory saddle of house-made red sauce and melted cheese.

The menu even makes a brief foray across the border for Salvadoran pupusas. It’s a worthwhile detour that leads to well-griddled thick corn tortillas with traditional fillings of chicharron, cheese, or a molten medley of cheese and pork. You may not even care that it’s served without the traditional accompaniment of a piquant cabbage slaw called curtido.

How about a sandwich? Choose any of the 13 variations on the torta theme, and you’ll be rewarded with an oversize bun called a bolillo that’s so lavishly crammed that the filling (anything from the taco list, plus additional options ranging from Cubano to chorizo and egg) spills out onto the plate.

If you’re feeling more adventurous, try a local rarity called a pambazo: essentially, a torta whose bread has been given a quick dip in a chile-reddened sauce before being grilled. You won’t regret it.

Under the heading “Cancun and Acapulco” you’ll find a broad selection of seafood, from coctel de camaron to grilled langostinos. An unconventional pescado a la Veracruzana substitutes jalapeños for the traditional green olives and capers.

For all the menu’s variety, star billing goes to the restaurant’s namesake enchiladas. An entire section is devoted to 15 regional variations, from the familiar rojas and verdes to the more exotic, pumpkin seed-thickened pipian sauce of the Michoacana. Mix and match these sauces with your choice of 10 meat or cheese fillings (including uncommon options such as lamb and Oaxacan cheese), and you’ve got more possible variations than this English major can calculate.

The House Enchiladas combination offers a good introduction in the form of four enchiladas - one each of shrimp, chicken, beef and cheese – blanketed with a vibrant guajillo chile sauce. A little more daring is the mole poblano: authentically dark and chocolaty, though somewhat sweeter than the norm.

In the first weeks after the restaurant opened last October, the kitchen was prone to inconsistencies - a side of overcooked corn, for instance, and severely undersalted refried beans. Those appear to have disappeared for the most part, though the eggy flan I got recently is evidence that there’s still room for improvement.

Manuel Madrigal, the restaurant’s affable owner/chef, occasionally ventures into the dining room. He’ll proudly tell you that he makes pretty much everything – including all the enchilada sauces – from scratch. He might even tell you a little about regional enchilada variations.

A native of Mexico City, Madrigal came to the States in 1997. He worked in several area restaurants before opening Salamandra, his first restaurant, in Durham. He closed that restaurant after just a year to open La Casa de las Enchiladas.

“Durham has a lot of authentic Mexican restaurants,” he says. “I think the competition will be less in Cary. It’s a nicer building, too.”

It is, indeed, though the off-the-beaten-path location is an obstacle to attracting a steady clientele. If enough people find it, then Durham’s loss will be Cary’s gain.

ggcox@bellsouth.net or blogs@newsobserver.com/mouthful

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