La Real deal
Hacienda ownership opens a new Casa in west Little Rock.
The curious thing about dining out is that sometimes, finding the place is as memorable as the experience of eating there itself. Such was the case a couple weeks back when I went in search of La Casa Real, a reincarnation of the west Little Rock location of La Hacienda, which had posted a sign on its door that it would reopen under this new name at the Market Street Shopping Center.
However, coming up empty and seeing no sign that the place was even opening soon caused me to doubt that information — or, at the very least, my limited understanding of Spanish. (How could “the real house” not be real?)
Regardless of the accuracy of my translation, a return trip last week proved patience is the key. Signage on Rodney Parham announced the opening, and, sure enough, a storefront on the west side of the center had a smallish banner (hopefully to be replaced by a more permanent fixture) indicating both the existence and exact placement of this new Mexican restaurant. Viva persistence!
Given the vast swaths of parking afforded to Market Street, finding a spot is no big deal, though it may not be right at the front door. Seating inside is likewise abundant, with the whole of one big dining room turned over to tables, with booths along the frontage of large windows offering ample natural light to the earthy-toned interior. If you’re familiar with La Hacienda locations, it’s fair to say La Casa Real is more subdued than Benton and more airy than Riverdale. Apologies to the folks in Hot Springs, but I’ve never made it down that way to check out what I understand to be the original.
As to the menu, thanks to the prevalence of the cuisine throughout town, it’s not hard to imagine what you’ll find. Hint: staples like fajitas, tacos and burritos are a good guess. But one thing about the menu is that it doesn’t seem to limit itself at lunch. You don’t just see dinner plates accompanied by various discount price combinations passed off as a broad midday selection. The lunch menu is an actual menu just for lunch — and a pretty interesting one at that.
Of course, there are the combinations, and that may well be a concession to what people expect. Various mixes of, say, a taco and an enchilada, a bean burrito or chile relleno. These are expected, usually served with rice and beans, and by and large can be had for $5.99. More exciting, however, is the reverse side of the lunch menu that offers an array of specialty dishes, almost all of which are identically priced at $7.99. Here you’ll see things like pollo with mole poblano (chicken with a traditional sauce), the house carne asada (see sidebar), brochetas, and various shrimp dishes. Some will likely be familiar if you frequently dine Mexican, but others will stick out for being unusual finds alongside the standard Speedy Gonzales. Oh, and for the record, I didn’t spot a lunch special actually called Speedy Gonzales, which I think is a first. I thought every Mexican place had that.
Maybe that’s something worth noting here, that La Casa Real isn’t just like every Mexican place. Maybe it’s something appreciably different — which is a good thing in a market crowded with this particular cuisine. While of La Hacienda relations, there were certainly differences from that venerable local chain, notably in the salsa varieties served (though the default service included both red and verde). But here there’s enough standout to set it apart and make it distinct. And that’s probably something worth having to hunt for.
Cheese dip ($3.75)
The house dip here is white cheese, with no major frills to speak of. Tiny bits of what looked to be jalapenos were peppered throughout, but there was no real heat or heft to the dip (at least, nothing that could compare to the fiery and delicious salsa verde). The consistency was on the thicker side, nice for dipping without leaving half of it dripped all over the table. In case that wasn’t enough, the cup was also served with a spoon for piling on. (sw)
Camarones al Mojo de Ajo ($7.99)
I’ve found this shrimp dish at other places and fallen in love with it. The Casa Real version offers no reason to buck that trend. The shrimp were sizable and cooked just right, well short of mushy. But of course the real treat of this preparation is the red garlic sauce, a concoction that borders on spicy but with no real sweat to it. The savory garlic hits just the right notes to make the whole thing come alive and pair so well with the shrimp itself. My only complaint is that it could have used a touch more garlic, but this comes from a very avid garlic lover. I didn’t get any tortillas, which is how I’ve seen this dish presented elsewhere, but none were promised, either. The side of rice was only average on the whole, but the beans were well above par, with an actual consistency and texture rather than the bland soup you’ll get at some places. (sw)
Carne asada la Casa Real ($7.99)
Though it had a fancy-sounding name, this was pretty much standard steak fajitas sauteed with hefty amounts of cilantro. The dish could have used a bit more spice, as it seemed fairly bland. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a cilantro fan, but when the leaves are warmed the taste profile diminishes considerably. In other words, it added about as much punch to these fajitas as a handful of spinach. Having said that, mix just about anything inside a tortilla with melty cheese dip and spicy salsa verde, and it becomes an instant winner. I just expected more kick from cumin or garlic or even red pepper in these Real fajitas. (mt)
IN A NUTSHELL
The newest Mexican on the block is a reborn branch of La Hacienda with a few twists to make it original. An extensive lunch menu goes beyond just the standard combos to offer some pleasing variety in an airy, casual setting at Market Street Shopping Center.
Location: 11121 N. Rodney Parham Road, Little Rock
Phone: (501) 219-4689
Hours: Monday-Saturday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Alcohol: Beer and wine