CASA in downtown L.A. hasn't had an easy start. Barely a month after it launched in January 2009, chef Kris Morningstar decamped for Mercantile and District. The Mexican restaurant consistently draws happy hour customers but hasn't had much success cracking L.A.'s foodist crowd. Owner Mario Del Pero hopes to change that with the recent addition of chef Alex Moreno, who he brought in to transform the menu into a more seasonally-based affair.
Born and raised in Los Angeles, 32-year-old Moreno worked in San Francisco for a significant chunk of his career, at Michael Mina's RN74 and as the chef de cuisine at Tres Agaves for five years. He's also worked as a tour chef for Van Halen, Destiny's Child and Nelly and has done stints in the kitchens of Melisse, Jiraffe, Spago, Bastide and Hatfield's.
Moreno's plan: bringing his own version of dishes from local taquerias (with their agreement) onto CASA's menu. It's a strange concept, to be sure, but Moreno believes it will set the restaurant apart. First up is USC-adjacent La Taquiza with its famous mulitas. Turn the page for the first part of our interview, and check back later for part two and a recipe from the chef.
Squid Ink: What were you brought in to do at CASA?
Alex Moreno: A whole revamp of the menu. When Mario brought me along, he definitely wanted me to do seasonal menus, change it up four times a year and get inspiration from some local taquerias. He was like, “Alex, you're from Los Angeles. You know the whole scene. Go out there and check out some local taquerias.”
SI: What was the idea behind bringing dishes from local taquerias onto CASA's menu?
AM: With La Taquiza, we went there and saw the mulita: It's already a great dish. What can we do to innovate it? What can we do to make it better? I was walking around downtown and went to the farmers market and saw some great peaches. Grilled peaches — let's see how it works in a mulita.
SI: How did the La Taquiza owners respond when you told them what you wanted to do?
AM: They responded really well. Mario, our owner, is a USC alumn and the [La Taquiza] owners are also USC alumni, so it kind of was easy for us.
SI: Has it been hard convincing other taqueria owners?
AM: Sometimes they're hesitant. They're like, “Why would you do that?” Why not? Nobody else does that. It's unique. But it's hard to convince the owners sometimes. They're like, “Really? You're going to promote us?” And it's like, of course.
We're inspired by you guys, and we want to promote your restaurant as well as promote our restaurant at the same time. We want to grab one of one of the dishes that you are known for and innovate it a little bit. We're not going to take the exact same dish and put it on our menu, but we're going to get the same concept and do a couple tweaks on it and make it ours.
SI: Do you worry that people will say, Why should I get a $9 mulita at CASA when I can get a $3 one at La Taquiza?
AM: No, we want to promote them. We want people to go in and check out local taquerias. It's about people knowing what's out there. Los Angeles is a Mecca of taquerias. There are so many great places out there that people don't know about.
SI: Having grown up in Los Angeles, what are some of your favorite taquerias?
AM: My favorite is El Mexicano down by the Orpheum Theatre. Growing up, me and my mom used to go there every Sunday. [And] La Casita Mexicana. I know it's not a taqueria, but it's definitely one of the places I really want to get in here. It's in the works, hopefully.
There are so many out there. I just recently tried Tinga. It's great. Their menu's cute. It's simple. It's unique. Somebody like them, I'd love to go in there and go, “I want to bring one of your dishes onto our menu, and I want to support you.” We want you to go there. It's all about supporting the local community.
SI: In terms of the L.A. Mexican restaurant scene, which has everything from low-end taquerias to very high-end restaurants, where do you see CASA fitting in?
AM: It's definitely not Rivera, and it's definitely not a taco truck. I'm inspired by local ingredients. I'm inspired by the farmers market. We want to push it to the next level, elevate the regular taco. Our taco al pastor, it's a beautiful traditional double-marinade, but we kick it up a notch with applewood-smoked bacon. It adds a little depth.
I try to keep it simple and light, especially during the springtime. There's no reason for Mexican food to be heavy and oily and greasy. As one of my chefs said, you can let the ingredients shine on their own.