In the first part of our interview with Alex Moreno, CASA's newish chef talked about his attempts to bring updated versions of other taqueria's dishes onto the menu. In part 2, Moreno gives more details, including his spin on classic dishes like birria (made with beef short ribs instead of goat) and pork sopes (made with bacon in the masa). He also discusses CASA's attempts to move beyond its reputation as a happy hour destination and existing in Rivera's long shadow.
Squid Ink: What new dishes have you brought to CASA since you've been there?
Alex Moreno: Our birria. It's a totally different take. Usually [birria] is made with goat, but we do it with a beef short rib. We keep the goat aspect, but it's not too pronounced. We just do a very light braise. It's served with a consommé, cherry tomatoes, chopped cilantro and onions, and a little crostini of goat cheese cream and some chiles fresnos stuffed with goat cheese. It eats very lightly.
One of the other dishes is the Alex Chicken Tacos. It's a traditional dish from the Yucatan [made with] a tortilla called a salpute. I got this inspiration from one of my guys in San Francisco. It's a corn masa-based tortilla. You add flour and a little bit of baking soda to it. Then you press it and flash fry it, so it's crispy on the outside and doughy on the inside.
Our pork sopes, we add bacon into our masa. It's our take on a pulled pork sandwich but in little masa boats. It's barbecued carnitas with our tinga sauce and little bacon bits inside the masa.
One of the things we just brought onto the menu is our Turduckenizo Albondigas. Every year, John Madden does a turducken. We [do our version with] ground duck, ground turkey, ground chicken and then we mix it. We put a little cream, a little egg, a little rice, a little zucchini then we finish it off with a little chorizo spice marinaded into it. We braise it in the chile morita broth so you get the whole shebang in this little ball.
The camarones fritos, [were inspired by] a restaurant in Chinatown. They do these walnut shrimps. What we do is almost the same. We put our shrimp inside the velvet (a mixture of egg whites and corn starch), fry them. then toss them in chipotle mayo and finish them off with candied almonds and roasted pineapple. They sit on a bed of shredded cabbage. It's one of our best sellers.
SI: And what's going to be on the new menu?
AM: We just worked on quesadillas de hongos (mushrooms). Right now we have a quesadilla with heirloom tomatoes on the menu. We have a fresh tortilla; it's not even been cooked yet. It's put on the flattop and while it's cooking you add the cheese. Once the cheese melts, it's crispy on the outside but a little bit doughy. We get a nice cold heirloom tomato, a big old slice, and put it right in the middle. For our fall season, it's the same technique with a little queso fresco and caramelized mushrooms. The last batch I did with Gambonis, chantarelles, a mix.
We're changing the sauce on the lobster enchilada to a roasted butternut squash sauce with a little chile guajillo. We're changing our tamal to a barbacoa tamal with a mole sauce. We're going to bring out three moles: mole poblano, a green mole and a yellow mole.
SI: Who is the target clientele?
AM: At lunch, it's definitely the businessmen. We're set up almost in a Chipotle style but on steroids. They want to get in and out fast. You go up to the window. We have burritos, bowls, tacos and salads. Customers decide on rice, beans, what kind of meat. You just work your way down [picking toppings]. Most of the time everybody wants everything on it.
SI: What about dinner?
AM: Dinner is all plated service. We're looking for the restaurant crowd. We want foodies coming in to eat here. That's one of the things the prior chefs weren't able to do. They were just not bringing… the food wasn't there. A lot of people, still, when I run into them say, “CASA's a restaurant? I thought it was just a bar.”
SI: Most of us know CASA mainly as a happy hour place.
AM: It's a huge, huge happy hour crowd. We have some great happy hour specials. For our fall menu, we're introducing a $3 menu. I think it's about seven different items we already have on our menu just reduced down. We're going to do a regular taco truck taco. We're going to use carnitas with our regular pico de gallo and pickled red onions. Our albondigas will be on there. Some of the sopes will be on the menu.
SI: Any fall specials?
AM: One of the things that I've been playing around with this week is chiles Nogales, chiles rellenos with ground beef, pork, dried fruit and served with walnut sauce and pomegranates. I was thinking about doing it in a taco, but that's kind of easy, so I'm thinking about doing it in a flauta instead. Ground beef maybe a bit of ground duck with dried cherries inside and then a pomegranate gastrique on the bottom and an almond sauce on top.
SI: This place never really quite took off with the LA foodist crowd. Why do you think that is?
AM: I don't know. I don't want to badmouth any other chefs that worked here. The owner wasn't happy with the food. It's a hard place to… it's hard to make Mexican food innovative and to bring it to a different level unless you're either doing super fine dining or what we're doing, a fast high-end or fast casual.
SI: Do you worry at all about trying to serve upscale Mexican food in downtown L.A. with Rivera as competition?
AM: It's two different animals. Rivera is definitely at the fine dining level. I don't think we're a fine dining restaurant, and I don't think we're striving to be. We want to be a fast, casual spot where people come in and have some great food. I'm not doing anything half-assed. Rivera is great. It's a beautiful restaurant. The amazing things the chef does there, it's super impressive. I would love to be there, but I don't think that's what this restaurant wants to be. If you make good food, people will come.