One of the best things about living in Waukesha is the influence of the large Mexican-American population on the dining (and shopping) scene. We are lucky enough to have two outstanding Mexican grocers, Panos which is downtown and Super Amigo which is on Racine Avenue, just west of 164. Both of them have great prices and a wide variety of Mexican products. The fruit and vegetables, especially the avocados, at Panos put Pick n’ Save to shame, and the awesome hot food options at Super Amigo make for a tasty and affordable lunch or dinner. Waukesha also has several Mexican restaurants, three of which I will review over the course of the next week or so: Casa Del Rio, La Estacion, and Taco Johns. I also hope to soon visit Margarita’s Mexican Grill, Chubby’s, Taco Amigo, El Ranchito, and that new place across from the Y on Broadway.
The two most popular Mexican eateries in town are Casa Del Rio and La Estacion. I tend to frequent LaEstacion as it is closer to my house but a few weeks ago I decided to give Casa Del Rio another try. It had been 5 or 6 years since I last ate there and a lot has changed. When you walk through the doors you cannot help but notice the large mosaic bar that curves through the main room. Off in the distance I could see and hear the three piece band belting out traditional Mexican songs as they strolled through the restaurant to keep the mood festive. If I could use one word to describe the atmosphere it would be “alive.” Too many restaurants are so quiet and sterile. This place is just the opposite. Even though it was packed, we were seated right away in the rear dining room, which was not there on my last visit. Sitting in the back room gives the impression that you are actually outdoors with a ceiling painted like the sky and a faux-brick floor and I would recommend eating in this area of the restaurant if seats are available.
As with most Mexican places you are presented with freshly made chips and salsa. The salsa was fresh and delicious, Made from ripe tomatoes, cilantro and onion, it was some of the best salsa I have had at a restaurant in a long time. I was having a difficult time deciding what to order. Dennis Getto as well as a couple of other people recommend the chile rellenos so I was leaning that way. In fact Getto declared them the best chile rellenos (at least that is what their menu claims). I decided to do something that I almost never do at a Mexican restaurant, I hedged my bets and ordered a combo meal that featured cheese chile relleno, a pork tamale, and seasoned ground beef taco ($8.75). You can sub-out steak for an additional 1.25, which I did.
Usually combo meals are problematic for me. I want to try a bunch of items but I have yet to find a combo that has all three items that I want to try. Its always some combo that has at least one item that I have no interest in like a chimichunga and almost all menus have the dreaded “No substitutions please” warning on the menu. Casa Del Rio is no exception. I don’t quite understand why this is so prevalent at Mexican restaurants. Why not have a list of items that you can get on a combo platter and let you pick 2 or 3? You could even charge $1.00 more for mix and match orders and people would be happy to pay it. Nonetheless I was excited because this was the first combo I have found in a long time that had three items that I wanted to try. You should be aware that this combo is not found under the “Combination Plates” section of the menu but rather in the “Mexican Dinners” section. They probably bury it there so you don’t start start getting any ideas about suggesting more good combination dinners. My wife ordered the Fiesta Enchiladas with chicken. Of course we ordered a couple of Mexican beers, a Corona for her and a Pacifico for me, to wash down our meals.
Our meals arrived promptly and I was quite impressed with my choice. The chile relleno had a great crunchy batter which coated a cheese and steak filled poblano pepper. It was topped with a nice tomato-based sauce. I agree with Getto, it was one of the best chile rellenos I have ever eaten. The pork tamale was also a hit. It was filled with a seasoned, slightly spicy shredded pork and had great tasting Masa shell. The steak taco was pretty pedestrian. It had the typical tiny brown steak bits that you can only seem to find at Mexican restaurants, lettuce, tomato and I think onions. It tasted like just about any other steak taco, not bad but definitely not earth shattering. The rice was ok (as it is at most places) but the refried beans were spectacular. They were creamy with just a hint of smoky bacon which was a nice touch. The enchiladas were not very good and I would probably describe them as bland. They were not terrible or inedible but very disappointing. The sauce had barely a hint of flavor which kind of doomed the entire dish to failure.
As we were eating the three piece band featuring two females and one male, each with a guitar approached our table. Now to be honest I would really not want to be a strolling musician in a restaurant where a bunch of white suburbanites dine becaue their only point of reference for Mexican music is Richie Valens’ “La Bamba,” which I heard no fewer than 3 times over the course of our hour-long dinner. The band keeps it interesting by adding little twists to the song, but I imagine it is quite taxing for them and I give them credit because they seemed content playing it for what I can only assume is the 10th time that evening. I imagine that by the time Christmas is over these guys would rather have their fingers chopped off than have to play another chord of Feliz Navidad. When they asked what we wanted to hear my wife just told them to play one of their favorites. They asked if we wanted a festive or a romantic song. We asked for the festive and were rewarded with an upbeat song that they played flawlessly. Wandering bands in restaurants can be annoying but at Casa Del Rio it is very enjoyable and the band is extremely talented.
Overall our experience at Casa Del Rio was a good one with the only complaint being about the bland Enchiladas. Don’t let that deter you because the Chilie Rellenos were phenomenal and the atmosphere is nothing like any other restaurant in Waukesha. If you cannot have a good time eating here you should seek help.