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.”

Next was a free appetizer of a small tamale for each of us, with accompanying heaplets of sour cream and green chile sauce. The tamales were merely unfilled masa flecked with some cubes of sweet potato, but upon dipping one into the deep-flavored, tangy salsa verde TJ realized, “The filling is outside the tamale — it's this sauce.”

The guacamole ($5.95) proved a refreshing revision: Instead of an even-textured melange, it included distinct hunks of juicy tomato, ovals of jalapeno, julienned green peppers, and slivers of onion, which may have been soaked in ice water to tame them, as they were sweet, mild, and slightly limp. The ceviche ($7.45) inspired a round of ceviche memories — and we both came to the joyous conclusion that this vibrant, balanced version was probably the best we've ever tasted. The fish chunks were halibut, mere halibut, but luscious in an oil-gentled lime juice marinade with fresh nopal cactus, tomato chunks, cilantro, well-mannered onion, and one big pickled jalapeno. Around the edge like flower petals were spears of sweet jicama, strewn with crushed red chile, just as they sometimes serve it for a “cooling” snack in Yucatan.

Our entree of puerco adobado de Cuernavaca had a vast, thick slab of boned pork T-bone, marinated and stewed in a complexly spiced orange- and lemon-juice mixture with fruits and vegetables (including sweet potatoes and very sweet, cinnamon-sprinkled candied carrots). The meat was so juicy that any cook who's ever turned out a dry pork chop would ache with envy. Atop it were orange slices sprinkled with pomegranate seeds. “This isn't like any Mexican food I've ever had,” said TJ, digging in happily if skeptically. “For one thing, pomegranate isn't Mexican.” “Sure it is,” I countered. “One of the national dishes, chiles en nogada, features chile rellenos sprinkled with pomegranate seeds. It's eaten on Mexican Independence Day because its colors are those of the flag.” The sweet-spicy sauce was delicious, and the heaping fruit-and-veggie assortment was tasty, fun, and blatantly healthy. The accompanying pilaf-style rice was nice, but the “refried” beans seemed slightly bland. Then I realized that the beans were horribly healthy, too, betraying no hint of disgraceful, delicious lard.

An exotic prawn entree, camarones de Lola, was sauteed with garlic, ginger, turmeric, bay leaves, oregano, chili, lemon, fresh tamarind, coconut milk, and coconut flakes. It sounds like Southeast Asian food, but most of its elements appear occasionally in one or another Mexican regional cuisine. The prawns were just slightly overcooked but still delicious in their rich seasonings and sauce. They came with nearly the same fruit-veg-rice-bean accompaniments as the pork, minus the orange slices.

TJ, while relishing every fascinating bite, continued to wonder about authenticity: “These dishes look and taste Caribbean, not Mexican,” he observed. “Well, Mexico's east coast is Caribbean, too, with lots of citrus in the cuisine,” I answered, “but this is more exuberant — you might get food like this in Cancun or Cozumel, or in some of those new resorts south of Tulum.” “But is that Mexican food, or just rich-tourist food?” TJ asked. “It's sort of both,” I said, getting launched into food-talk orbit, “because Mexican food is as much subject to chefs' creativity as French or Italian or whatever you name. Like anywhere, you can find every level of cooking. You go to a luncheonette in downtown Mexico City, you'll find the dishes you expect, plus things like budin Azteca — stale-tortilla pudding — that restaurants here consider too low-class to serve. In outlying areas like Oaxaca or Veracruz, you'll get regional specialties that only serious 'haute Mexican' restaurants in the U.S. attempt. Or you go to fancier restaurants in the cities or in resort areas, catering to prosperous Mexicans as well as tourists, and you might get just this sort of sophisticated, creative take on traditional cuisine. Except — here, the portions are bigger and the prices are probably relatively lower.”

Finally we asked the waitress about the jefe. The owner/head chef, she disclosed, is married to a woman from Torreon (a medium-size city in Northern Mexico, coincidentally just east of Monterrey) but is, himself, of German ancestry, Philippines-raised, and a frequent commuter between S.F. and Mexico. “Well,” I thought, “that Philippine upbringing certainly explains the frequency of bay leaves, turmeric, and coconut milk.” Still, for all the Asian-tropical touches, the food at Casa Aguila is, at heart, truly Mexican. And better yet, it's terrific, with flavors as vivid as the decor surrounding it — the real “fresh Mex.

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