The fried flour tortilla stuffed with tomatillo marinated shredded chicken breast, jalepeno-cilantro salsa, smoked queso and guacamole crunches under the pressure of my teeth, and I gulp self-consciously. I can already feel the impending fullness – the engorged belly that will keep me up all night like it has on so many occasions after attending a media or tasting dinner.
Tonight’s meal at CASA, a modern Mexican cantina in Downtown LA, won’t be kind to my waistline. Executive Chef Alex Moreno who has worked at Melisse, Jiraffe, Spago and Bastide, is preparing nine different dishes for us to taste. There will be nine different ways for me to overeat. Nine different ways for me to spend all night hugging my belly in pain, thinking, “Why, why, why did I find it necessary to eat the second flautas de pollo or that third helping of carnitas?”
I swallow and cleanse my mouth with a sip of the hip restaurant’s strong margarita. It’s pleasant as margaritas go – not too sweet or cloying on my liquor-phobic palate. Even so, I still find myself pushing it to the side, fully aware that hard alcohol and I don’t get along.
"Tonight I will be the picture of restraint," I tell myself. "For once, I won’t overexert myself gastronomically."
My plan starts off fine. I manage to cast my eyes away from the chips and guacamole after just two “tasting” bites to confirm that the are indeed tortilla chips and the guacamole is indeed made with avocado. I tackle only one of the Pork Belly Sopes topped with salsa negra and queso fresco that are slightly reminiscent of the version at Rick Bayless’ Red O. The smoky flavor of the braised pork reminds me of BBQ sauce, but it is a pleasurable nibble that doesn’t take up too much precious stomach real estate.
Neither does the Carnitas Torta Slider with a smoky sweet tinga sauce, pico de gallo and crema. Much to the horror of the dining companion to my left, I ceremoniously remove the supple pork to eat sans bun – an action that she immediately attributes to a carbohydrate phobia.
“Oh no!” I burst out. “I’m just saving room. There’s a lot coming.”
She nods, but I’m not quite sure she believes me. Especially when I stop eating mid-way through Chef Alex’s Chicken Taco, an understated Yucatecan style taco served with chilled, shredded chicken breast, cabbage, cotija cheese and mild habanero salsa in a lightly crisped corn tortilla. It’s even harder for me to abandon the Taco de Camarones Fritos with lightly battered shrimp that are tossed in a spicy crema and served with caramelized pineapple, cabbage and house candied almonds. While I do set the flour tortilla aside after a few bites to, again “save my stomach,” I actually discover I prefer the taco fillings sans carbohydrate shell. The kick from the crema juxtaposed with the sweetness of the pineapple really comes through without the typically welcome distraction of the tortilla. The crunch from the almonds and cabbage are also more pronounced on my palate without the soft wrapper to contend with.
At this juncture in the meal, I’m feeling pretty proud of myself. I’m flying high, feeling good – not anywhere near stomach-rubbing status.
"I’ll surely sleep like a baby tonight," I think smugly.
Then the Carnitas arrive – large chunks of shreddable pork shoulder served with roasted Yukon Gold potatoes, pickled red onions and chile guajillo sauce and lime crema.
I gulp at the sight of the behemoth before us. It’s massive – so large that I can barely fit all of the components on my camera screen. There’s a lot going on. Seemingly too much going on, and I’m fully confident that I’ll be able to coast through this course without overindulging.
Or at least I am until I taste it.
As I reach for the serving spoon again, I realize that this is what I’ve been saving room for. It’s the reason I was abandoning carbohydrate soldiers right and left during the preceding courses. It's the reason I didn't eat my weight in chips. It's the reason I didn't knock off the entire plate of chicken flautas.
The char on the pork shoulder is a compelling contrast to the tender shreds of flesh, the sweet onions dance with the caramelized pork bits and potato hash, and the lime cream adds a welcome cooling element to temper the bolder flavors. After three helpings, I know I’m in for it. I’m barely able to touch the less flavorful Braised Beef Short Ribs Birria with beef broth and goat cheese stuffed peppers and crostini garnishes; or the pleasantly sweet Tamale de Elote with chile sauce, goat cheese crema and addictive house candied pepitas.
"I’m done," I tell myself. "Cooked. Out for the count."
Or maybe I’m just saving room for the Mexican Chocolate Pot de Crème with caramelized plantains, peanuts and whipped cream that is far better than most of the desserts I’ve encountered at a Mexican restaurant.
“Just one bite,” I think when it’s presented to me.
“Just one more.” I think a moment later as the salty and sweet elements blissfully collide on my tongue..
“Okay, this is really the last one,” I think after four additional spoonfuls disappear into my mouth.
My stomach groans in protest, but when I finally do lay my spoon to rest, I feel completely satisfied. Tonight, the pain will be worth it.
I’ll do “restrained” tomorrow.
350 South Grand Avenue
2 California Plaza
Los Angeles, CA 90013
Phone: (213) 621-2249