There are many dead ends in restoration. Pretty places that look promising, even producing delicious food until the owner runs out of money, faith in the business, or both.
Witnessing an operator’s transformation from a food truck rookie to a restaurateur capable of not only cooking delicious food, but also running a fully staffed and operational restaurant is as rare as goose teeth.
So there’s an added ration of satisfaction in introducing Casa Azul, the Mexican-inspired restaurant and bar on the corner of Allen and Elmwood, the former Cantina Loco space. Owner Zina Lapi has come a long way since her first foray into the Buffalo food scene, the arancini-focused Blue Balls Bus truck.
After a few years on Genesee Street, Lapi got a much bigger space in the heart of Allentown, which will open in January. Lapi has Seabar and Yoshi alum Ken Legnon running the kitchen, Jess Wright running the service, and Danny Licker running the bar. (Yes, that’s his real name.)
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Notable changes from the renovations include the ability to hear people at your table in a room that previously had the sonic characteristics of a basement death metal show.
Working from a redesigned kitchen, the Lapi team serves up compelling dishes and sensational cocktails. Now that the 75-seat patio is open, complete with its own bar, Casa Azul is ready for the prime-time summer season.
What are you going to drink? Consider the margaritas ($10) with cucumber-cilantro-jalapeno, watermelon basil or avocado honey, with a rim of black lava salt. Cocktails ($12) like the Pineapple Negroni and Poblano Plane, made with charred poblano-infused bourbon, add delicious wrinkles to old favorites.
There’s also a veritable library of tequila and mezcal, some quirky delights like prickly pear liquor ($9), and 10 taps of beer and cider from here and there.
The food is what really attracted me.
Queso fundido ($12), made with chihuahua and queso fresco cheeses, stretches like a dream before wrapping around the tortilla chip for nutrition-safe. That’s because real cheese gives you strings, unlike queso dip, which offers the creamiest sauce scientists can conjure up, straight out of the box.
Even the plain cheese is indulgent, dressed with marinated habanero onions, a drizzle of honey and candied roasted pumpkin seeds. You can add an egg or taco meats ($2-$5 extra). The bronze caramelized cheese crust that you remove from the pan last might be the best part.
Charred Caesar ($12), a bold combination of charred Brussels sprouts and cauliflower, is spiked with cotija cheese, charred chili dressing and toasted pumpkin seeds for a hearty vegetarian plate.
Taquitos ($14) are homemade corn tortillas filled with braised pork and cabbage, then fried. Served with a racy charred jalapeno aioli and green chili sauce, these are appetizers with heart, enjoying fresh homemade tortillas prepared by an expert every shift.
The tacos come in threes ($14), in a full range of satisfying choices, from vegan to carnivorous.
The chicken is candied thighs, not the usual chalky chicken breast, topped with herb salsa and crispy chicken skin chicharrones. The al pastor, pork marinated in chili and pineapple, is sliced on a vertical spit in the traditional way that few restaurants here bother with.
Pan-fried prawns in sweet-spicy chamoy sauce and fish with herb aioli still come out crispy under marinated onions.
Charred Brussels Sprouts Tacos were a surprise best seller, a testament to Casa Azul’s determination to provide vegan offerings that go way beyond form. The roasted cauliflower and shishito chili tacos are vegan, and a potato-poblano taco with pepitas, cream and cotija can be made as well.
Three custom salsas include chopped fresh tomato-onion-jalapeno-cilantro pico de gallo, a charred salsa where the peppers, onions, tomatoes and other ingredients are charred on a griddle before being stirred into the salsa, and one made with smoked guajillo peppers and pineapple.
Acapulco Shrimp Ceviche ($14) splits the difference between American Shrimp Cocktail and Mexican Shrimp Ceviche with poached jumbo shrimp arranged in a spicy tomato broth.
Enchiladas stuffed with black beans, cheese and roasted poblano peppers are topped with homemade mole verde ($17) of unparalleled depth and complexity. What a tasty orchestra: chili peppers, garlic, epazote, Mexican oregano, nuts, dried fruits, spices on a pepita base, each bite an expanding mystery.
The cod ($19) slathered in black garlic sauce is simmered in a poblano corn “chowder” lightly enriched with a hint of cream. It comes out still bubbly, dazzled with crunchy, coin-sized potato chips, green onions and cilantro oil.
Sweets include churros ($8), donut sticks drizzled with dulce de leche caramel and sprinkled with cinnamon sugar.
Casa Azul offers fine cuisine. Not in the classic definition of the white tablecloth, the waiter in a bow tie, but in a broader sense: a meal that makes you happy to be alive.
You might disagree that this is the best Mexican-inspired restaurant in Buffalo.
But tell me you can find a more compelling stretch cheese experience than at Casa Azul, and I’ll insist you have a fake ID.
191 Allen Street, casaazulbuffalo.com716-331-3869
Opening hours: 4 p.m. to 11 p.m. Monday, Tuesday and Thursday; 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday; and 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Sunday. Closed on Wednesday.
Price: entrees, $5 to $14; entrees, $14 to $19.
Atmosphere: friendly canteen
Wheelchair accessible: yes
Gluten-free: many choices
Al fresco dining: full-service terrace
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