The Real "Fresh Mex"

Casa Aguila
1240 Noriega (at 20th Avenue), 661-5593. Open daily from 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. and 5 to 10 p.m.; Sundays the hours are more casual. Reservations advised for weekend dinners. Parking's easy. Muni via the 28 19th Avenue and the 71 Noriega. The restaurant is not wheelchair accessible.

We came back weary from our zip-zap vacationette in Monterey, weary especially of Chevy's Mexi-gringo "fresh Mex," which we ate once on purpose because it was cheap and a second time because nothing else nearby was both open and affordable. You know about "soul food"; well, Chevy's makes soulless food. Even the half-price happy-hour appetizers weren't worth half-price.

So as we drove home, we were still hungry for Mexican food -- genuine Mexican dinner food, not yanqui-adapted fakery, not eat-the-planet wraps, not even good neighborhood tacos. In fact, after Chevy's we didn't want any more wrapped food, period. Antojitos, the stuffed-something items -- tacos, burritos, enchiladas, flautas, chile relleno, etc. -- that most Americans mistake for the sum total of south-of-the-border cuisine, are snacks or lunches or leftover-holders in Mexico; they're not a restaurant dinner.

As soon as we got home I dived into the waiting mail. Among the catalogs and charity guilt-trips was a note from a Weekly staffer stapled to a menu for a burger joint. "Why don't you review more places I can afford?" the note inquired. Well, that did it. "We're going to Casa Aguila tonight," I declared. "What's that?" TJ asked. "Remember that time last year when we had so much laundry, we took it to that giant laundromat on Noriega? And afterward we went to a Mexican restaurant down the block that was just about to close for the night? And even though they were all out of almost everything they rustled up a great chimichanga for us, with fruits and stuff piled all over it?" TJ remembered vividly and perked right up, ready to hit the road again if the road led to Casa Aguila.

On weekends, the restaurant often has a line out the door, but we hit it on a Monday night, when most eateries are closed, and hence most diners steel themselves to home cooking. As we entered, the last of the earlier customers were leaving -- but although we had the place to ourselves it still felt like a fiesta in progress. To a soundtrack of Mexican covers of '50s rock 'n' roll hits, the room fairly sang with good cheer. Strings of winking Christmas lights mingle with sparkling stars hung across the ceiling, alternating with parades of big hanging paper ornaments depicting oranges, cherries, grapes, pears, bananas, and the lone veggie, corn. The fabric hangings include a Mexican flag, which sports in its center the Aztec emblem of an eagle -- aguila in Spanish, hence the restaurant's name. On a high ledge squats a seedy fake stuffed eagle, and beneath it stands a life-size wooden sculpture of a Zapatista (the original type, not one of the current Chiapans resuming the struggle). "All it needs is a pinata," said TJ. "We're inside the pinata," I said.

The awesome menu runs four legal-size pages -- although some of its length stems from the precise descriptions for nearly every dish, including not just ingredients but cooking details. There's a half-page of appetizers, and a half-page of soups, salads, and tostadas (humongous main-dish salads heaped on crisp tortillas). A half-page of "Traditionals" covers the antojito choices, ranging from $6.75 for one to $18.95 for a "Robo Rambo Combinacion" of five plus rice and beans. "If you can take this on without sharing a single morsel with anyone then the meal is on the HOUSE!" says the menu. "Heck, we will even buy you a beer. In salute to your prowess, everyone in the kitchen will bang aloud their pots and pans."

After that come the serious main courses: You can get giant parilladas (platters of grilled meats, chicken, and/or fish) that will feed two or more ($21-34). All other entrees are $12.95, including a 12-ounce New York steak, a whole page of beef, pork, and chicken entrees, and another full page of seafood. You want dessert? I've heard they make a good flan, but I've never gotten that far. Many of the entrees have sweet flavors and fruit garnishes that satisfy the dessert tooth; besides, almost every time I've eaten at Casa Aguila, I've brought home the equivalent of a second whole meal -- and that's without once ordering the Robo Rambo.

Two things can happen during a really slow night in a restaurant (and when the owner/head chef is out of town, as we later discovered). In a well-run kitchen, the food will be the same or better than ever, while a badly run kitchen will just slack off and try to get you out of there fast so everybody can go home. Casa Aguila proved well-run.

While awaiting our appetizers, I sipped a fruity, fresh, and fabulous sangria and TJ tried an unknown beer, Chihuaha, and decided it was a dog. He covered a chip with a big scoop of the salsita (uncooked salsa) and crunched down. His eyeballs spun, his ears smoked. "This is not Chevy's salsa," he gasped. The oniony salsa held a birdshot-load of minced serrano chiles, which are much spicier than jalapenos. "It's great," said TJ, recovering his voice, "but I just wasn't expecting it."

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