In the beginning, there are voices. One curious person pops in at a new restaurant, likes it and tells three friends who tell three friends of their own. And so on. Munch knows many places that owe their existence to their groundswell of local support -- these are Munch's favorite places to eat -- but in all Munch's years as a published critic, there's been no fan base more vocal than that for Mexi-Casa, in Dormont.
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Since the joint opened, just a year ago, Munch has received countless e-mails from Mexi-Casa lovers. Munch, ever narcissistic, trusts fans of Munch, for it's so obvious that those with the wisdom to love and trust Munch have impeccable taste. So Munch will share some of the urgent Munchfan Mexi-Casa testimonials, since those ambitious enough to petition Munch deserve to be published:
"I had the cheese and bean burrito, which turned out to be massive. One could probably take it out for a pass and score a touchdown."
"The food is the closest thing to anything I've tasted since leaving Texas 15 years ago."
"I love the fact that it's small, quaint and, most of all, local. I despise chain restaurants and love when something original pops up in the neighborhood."
Obviously these folks -- confident, senses honed, notes carefully composed -- are all gritting for Munch's job. So Munch and FOM headed out to Mexi-Casa a.s.a.p. -- on a hot, rainy evening, stomachs growling, a sixer tucked under the arm.
Mexi-Casa has a sunny corner space and a quiet storefront. Inside, there are several tables and a long blue-tiled bar, lined with high stools, facing into the kitchen. Behind this is another bar, lined with hot sauce bottles, dozens of them, green, purple, red, orange, chipotle, habanero, jalapeno, with names that promise pain and suffering, like "insane" and "butt-burner."
Munch needed to try Mexi-Casa's much-touted guacamole -- though the best local guac is made by Father of Munch. Mexi-Casa's is a close second, creamy and chunky both, very fresh, slightly tangy. Munch had it on a sampler ($5.95), piled with chips, of all of Mexi-Casa's homemade dips. The salsa was diced in even bits, in the Mad-Mex manner Munch enjoys most, its flavor crisp and bright with cilantro. Con queso dip is an unctuous and piquant concoction of Monterey Jack and cheddar, blended with jalapenos, salsa and Rolling Rock beer. Good stuff.
Tortilla soup ($4.95) is thick with shredded chicken, served with a hunk of sweet corn bread studded with jalapeno rings. Munch leaned on FOM to order the Frito pie -- as true a Texas/Arkansas casserole as you can find, layers of chili, Fritos and shredded cheese -- but he wanted ribs instead. Irreproachable choice, for they are darn good ribs: moist, falling-off-the-bone-tender meat with a real smoky flavor, bathed in a sticky-thick, spicy-sweet Jack Daniel's barbecue sauce (half-rack, $8, rack, $15).
The friendly, helpful proprietor pulled up a chair to expound on his fat burritos. Munch ordered the spicy shredded chicken ($4.95), because it is the most popular choice. It was tasty (though not too spicy), but duller than the sparkling fresh flavors and crunchy textures of the steak fajita burrito ($6.50) FOM had chosen.
There are plenty of veggie burrito options -- grilled tofu, grilled veggie, bean and cheese -- as well as Tex-Mex-y taco salad, quesadillas, soft tacos and pulled pork or barbecue chicken sandwiches. Mexi-Casa has applied for a liquor license, but right now you can BYOB.
Listed on a blackboard is a full battery of desserts Munch and FOM had no room to sample: rum raisin rice pudding, marshmallow-nut-caramel brownies, grilled caramel apple cheesecake and cookies -- "clippers" south of the Mason-Dixon line -- plump with white chocolate chips, cherries and walnuts.
Mexi-Casa operates with enthusiasm, pride and professionalism. Munch approves. Best: The restaurant is pleasant and clean -- "Born to Run" purrs from the speakers -- and shockingly inexpensive.
So thanks, readers, for Munch's full belly and happy smile.
Mexi-Casa is at 3001 W. Liberty Ave. in Dormont (412-571-9001).