So far from home

Casa Chiapas’s inviting porch is rarely this empty. Writers, residents, and the leisurely hold forth over cups of coffee during most business hours.
Casa Chiapas
928 S. Alamo
6:30am-4pm Mon-Wed; 6:30am-10pm Thu-Sat; 10am-2pm Sun
Credit cards
Entrées: $5.95-6.50
Not wheelchair accessible

We suspect that when most norteamericanos think of Chiapas, the images that appear are of masked, mountain-dwelling revolutionaries — not plates of some steaming and savory local culinary specialty. (Go ahead; try to name one.) Yes, we might recall that the same mountains also harbor coffee plantations, but visions of the pickled vegetables of San Cristobal de las Casas or banana-leaf-wrapped tamales stuffed with masa and pork in a mild mole are unlikely to be conjured. Tescalate, a chocolate drink prepared from cacao beans ground with dried corn and flavored with achiote? Never heard of it.

Mary Martinez and her family at Casa Chiapas in Southtown thus have a hard row to hoe. “I’m working on some `chiapanecan` recipes, but they’re not yet ready,” offered Mary, whose past restaurant experience is centered on a Dairy Queen outlet. In the meantime, “we’re offering some healthful alternatives `to other area restaurants`” says the younger generation’s Eddie Martinez. Unfortunately, healthful alternatives don’t make for much of an overall theme. Offerings currently range from Italian wedding soup to a panino of pollo a la plancha con queso blanco, from carrot cake to a Southwestern wrap with ham and jalapeño jack, and from sausage kolaches to pecan-studded pancakes. But there is that mountain-grown coffee for starters.

My litmus-test request for a double decaf expresso met with much consternation, however, and the result, though appropriately served, was thin, wan, and entirely unrepresentative of the burly brew that could have come from the region’s robust beans. Scrambled eggs with machacado suffered from a similar lack of conviction, the machacado being slices of sirloin tip, not the dried, shredded beef classically used (the menu did admit this), and the accompanying beans seemed like a recocido version of yesterday’s frijoles mas o menos a la charra.

The day-before’s beans, well-flavored with bacon, were actually pretty good served with a dinner special, available Thursday through Saturday. The two options available on a Friday night preceding a poetry reading did not put me in a poetic frame of mind, however; they were beef enchiladas and beef chalupas. Oh, I can’t complain about the chalupas; they were well-stacked with mild beef, real lettuce, and grated cheese that didn’t seem to come from a package. But they’re also the stuff of every other corner here, and are hardly an alternative to anything. The super-scale lemon bars, on the other hand, were blessed with a tender bottom crust, a delicately lemony flavor, and an almost-restrained amount of powdered sugar, making them the evening’s star.

It’s perhaps at noon that the work in re-doing the old Espuma digs is most apparent. Light shining through lace-curtained windows reveals walls painted in pleasant yellow and terra cotta tones and hung with art for sale mixed with tourist posters, along with a collection of motley but comfortable furniture. In this eclectic setting we consumed an equally diverse array of dishes, starting with the Italian wedding soup and a campechana shrimp cocktail. Basic wedding soup is rarely exciting, but CC’s was properly done with baby meatballs, spinach, and tiny pasta pellets, all in a clear and delicate broth. But having been told that the campechana came with fresh avocado, we were surprised not to find it in the very soupy (but just spicy enough) tomato broth concealing a decent quantity of lightly cooked shrimp. “The avocadoes didn’t look good,” we were finally told, encouraging in one sense, but not in another.

Wraps and panini aren’t yet as ubiquitous as chalupas and enchiladas, but the competition is getting serious. I’d give the carne asada panino good marks for its overall look and taste, despite missing much of the chipotle sauce and not considering jalapeño jack cheese to be the same as the expected queso blanco. I’m less inclined to be generous with the Mediterranean wrap. The large, whole-wheat tortilla seemed to have been spread with an herbed mayo, and all the romaine and red onion was fresh, but the roast beef was sliced from a cylinder, the mozzarella had little moxie, and only the bacon seemed to add any real spark. In contrast, a creamy macaroni-salad side had genuine personality, and the bowtie pasta salad was colorful and lively in spite of what appeared to be parmesan from that other cylinder — the green one.

Mary Martinez also operates, at Casa Chiapas, a boutique featuring products from the namesake state, including some very handsome huipiles. And she has plans to install a video monitor to present cultural programs such as explorations of la ruta del café. Her heart is clearly in the right place, and if she and her clan can get the kitchen there, too, Casa Chiapas will indeed become a viable alternative in the Southtown scene. And if it’s occasionally healthy, all the better.


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