Big House on the Hill
On Fridays at Casa Grande, the wacky Tex-Mex joint on North Main at I-45, most of the lunch specials are seafood dishes. I liked the big, juicy, grilled shrimp on my tablemate's shrimp-and-fajitas combo. The chunky-looking fajitas on his plate were made with some kind of enzyme-marinated beef, but I have no idea what cut it was. In fact, I'm not even sure the fajitas were all the same cut — some of the meat chunks tasted tougher than others.
I ordered caldo de mariscos, and it was awful. The shrimp were already peeled and the fish chunks were okay, but the fake crab was coming apart. Surimi, or krab with a "K," is a thin sheet of fish protein rolled up and colored with red dye on the edge to resemble crabmeat. The fake crab didn't fare so well in the soup — the sheet of protein unrolled in the hot broth. Instead of crabmeat, the unwound white ribbon with a red edge looked like a bloody bandage there in my bowl. The fish broth was watery and flavorless.
Now you might say that asking for caldo de mariscos in a Tex-Mex joint is the equivalent of ordering the steak at a pancake house — a predictable disaster. But I had just eaten an excellent bowl of caldo de camarones at a humble Mexican eatery called Tacos la Bala on Bellaire. So I figured it wasn't unreasonable. At Tacos la Bala, they use unshelled shrimp. The shrimp broth is rich and tasty, even if you have to shell your own shrimp.
As I sat there considering my caldo de bandages, one of the gringos at the next table got his nachos delivered. My eyes widened. I had seen "half order of nachos supreme" on the list of lunch specials, but dismissed the idea immediately. Who gets nachos for an entrée, right?
But when I saw the enormous pile of chips covered with beans, fajita meat and melted cheese garnished with guacamole, slices of pickled jalapeño, lettuce, tomato and sour cream, with salsa on the side, I wished I had ordered them, too. This style of nachos is an old Tex-Mex tradition.
In the 1970s, a restaurant called the Round-Up in Pharr started serving a huge communal plate of nachos with a topping of fajitas and condiments just like the one served at Casa Grande. At the Round-Up, they called it a botanas platter. The restaurant started giving them out free at happy hour, but soon they became its most famous menu item.
While researching the history of fajitas, I was told that this was the first restaurant dish featuring fajitas in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. Botanas platters, or fajita nachos, are still popular down in the LRGV. I sure knew what I was going to order next time I visited Casa Grande.
I wondered if the owner of Casa Grande was from the Valley. My lunchmate, Jay Francis, told me that he heard the owner also owned a tree service and that he started a bakery with a wood-burning oven on Irvington to use up the wood. I told Francis that sounded like an urban legend, but he promptly asked the cashier in Spanish if the owner still had a bakery, and she nodded in the affirmative.
"Musico Vivo, Cabrito Y Mariscos" (live music, goat and seafood) says the sign out front under the huge Casa Grande standard that is visible driving northbound on I-45. The restaurant's decor is vintage. There are velvet paintings on the wall, but with none of that tongue-in-cheek Chuy's irony about them.
The oddest part of the business complex is the dance hall on the second floor. On Friday and Saturday nights, the parking lots overflow and the place is packed with middle-aged Mexican-American couples who come to dance to classic salsa and cumbia dance numbers. Admission ranges from $12 to $16, I was told.
We started walking up the stairs to take a look at the empty hall. We were stopped by the manager, who identified himself as one of the owner's sons. He said we could take a look, but he insisted I leave my camera with him.
"It looks like the Moderna in Piedras Negras," Francis observed once we got up there. We once visited that old Tex-Mex nightclub while attending the International Nacho Festival in the border town across from Eagle Pass. There was a bandstand in front, a dance floor in the middle and tables around both sides. It's actually the same layout you see in lots of nightclubs. I wondered why I wasn't supposed to take photos. Was there something secret about the way the tables were arranged?
A few days later, Jay Francis knocked on my kitchen window and showed me a box full of takeout containers. He left the box on my back porch and was driving away before I got to the door. That's okay, I am used to being treated like a leper by now.
I was diagnosed with swine flu before I got a chance to visit Casa Grande again. Jay Francis kindly agreed to stop by the restaurant and pick up an order of nachos supreme, some cabrito and a cheese enchilada plate so that I could finish this review. I offered to give him a check, but he refused to touch anything I had handled — including the doorknob.
The cheese enchiladas were very disappointing. There was hardly any chili gravy surrounding them, just a lot of oozy cheese. The nachos were well-packed. The chips were topped with tasty refried beans, marinated fajita meat and melted cheese. These came in one big Stryofoam container. Meanwhile, the lettuce, tomato, guacamole, sour cream and jalapeños came in several smaller containers so the whole thing didn't get soggy or mixed together during transportation.
My housemates loved the nachos heaped with all the toppings, and helped themselves to most of the pile before my diseased fingers were allowed to contaminate them. I am lucky they left me any. If you never considered nachos an entrée item, try the ones at Casa Grande.
But the real surprise was the kid goat. I think it was cabrito ranchero, moist goat meat simmered in a tomato chile sauce. The generous helping of shoulder meat came garnished with roasted red peppers and caramelized onions, with lots of Spanish rice and homemade flour tortillas on the side. And since I am the only one in the house who likes goat, I got it all to myself.
I am looking forward to eating nachos and drinking margaritas at Casa Grande some Thursday night when the restaurant has free live music in the downstairs bar. See you there, after I get released from quarantine.
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