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Jun 10, 2007 04:29 PM

Casa de Madera - San Diego

4 years ago I was sitting in one of the courtyards of the Camino Real hotel in Oaxaca along with about 12 other folks, all of us about to embark on a week long culinary experience with Rick Bayless that was being sponsored by the CIA/Greystone. I was chatting with the couple sitting next to me and discovered that the husband was from San Diego. It turned out we went to the same high school (Patrick Henry) and graduated only a few years apart. What was even stranger was that we grew up right around the corner but had to travel 5,000 miles away to a foreign country in order to meet up.

Next month this same couple and I will be doing a week long cooking experience with Diana Kennedy in Zitacuaro, Michoacan. They just happened to be in San Diego this weekend visiting his folks, who still live just 6 doors away from my mother. So we decided to get together, catch up and speculate about cooking with DK. And thanks to jturtle's detective work we decided to have lunch at Casa de Madera. It's on 5th Ave. between University and Washington right across the street from Bombay, Kemo Sabe and the Corvette Diner. Chilangos' may be gone, but it is not forgotten, and Casa de Madera, with an interesting mix of traditional and not-quite-alta concina menu selections, appears to be a worthy successor.

There were several non-alcoholic drinks that sounded really great, like the Mango Spritzer made with mango pulp and club soda, or the Tijuana Taxi made from pineapple, papaya, mango and cranberry juice or even the G3 Shooter and anti-oxident rich combo of Gac fruit and siberian pineapple, not that I know what Gac fruit is ;-). I've never heard of it, there are a couple of typos on the menu and I didn't see that until after I'd left. We all chose margaritas on the rocks and were not disappointed. I suspect they probably do use maggie mix but it wasn't overly sweet and did seem to have some citrus bite to it. In any event, we had no problems whatsoever worrying them down.

Lunch starters range from $8.95 - $10.95 and are really sufficient enough to be a light lunch. More by coincidence than intent, we all ended up ordering off this part of the menu. We started with a plate of quesadillas to accompany our drinks. The quesadillas come 3 to an order and can be had with any one of three filling options, or with one of each. We went for one of each and ended up with chicken tinga, poblano, and hongo. My favorite kind of quesadilla is made from fresh masa, stuffed and then toated on a lightly greased griddle top. The corn gets a thin crispy shell, but the interior remains light, soft and almost creamy. The Casa de Madera quesadillas were not my favorite kind, but to be fair, I haven't, yet, found any place in SD that does them this way. The quesadillas at Casa de Madera were, however, pretty darned good. Each was made from a corn tortilla that was a little thicker than normal, griddled and then folded. The fillings were generous but not overwhelming with the poblano being the consensus favorite. Fresh chiles had been blistered by fire, peeled and then folded into the tortilla with a bit of cheese for a savory, smokey, pleasantly spicy bite with a little crunch. The hongos (mushrooms) were lightly sauteed, their earthiness deliciously enhanced by the chile de arbol table sauce. Tingas are, essentially, stews made from shredded meat, tomatoes, chiles and onions. The chicken tinga quesadilla was the least successful of the 3. The tinga was good but a little uninspired and didn't seem to blend as well with the corn tortillas as the chiles and mushrooms did.

The entree options for lunch are varied beginning with a choice of soups - Totilla, Shrimp Pozole or a cold Cream of Avocado spiked with blue agave tequila, or a traditional Caesar or Spinach salad. The usual suspects - tacos, burritos, enchiladas and chile relleno appear as lunch specials ($7.95 - $12.95), but with a twist. Al pastor tacos aren't pork but marinated salmon and grilled pineapple, enchiladas are green or mole and the ravioli stuffed with huitlacoche (corn smut) and served in a hibiscus (jamaica) and chipotle sauce. But we were still stuck on the appetizer portion of the menu and ended up with Tacos de Nata, Empanadas Frida Kahlo and Sopecitos Yucatecos.

If you're old enough to remember milk bottles with very rich cream at the top, that cream is very close to nata. It's rich, buttery and can add a suave and silken touch to any dish. The menu says these tacos are served enchilada-style, which is to say, they were way more enchilada than taco. Each one was generously stuffed with cubes of chicken breast and then bathed in a tomato based sauce that had been lightened with cream and garnished with yet more cream. The plate was finished with a nice ring of arroz blanco (white rice) and fried plantain. It was a nice, mild plate of enchiladas, though nothing one of the 3 table salsas couldn't perk up. This was my entree and I would order it again, mostly because the portion size was perfect for lunch.

The empanada presentation was striking. The Casa de Madera china is all white; the empanadas, served 4 to an order, on an oblong plate and dressed with an intensely dark mole made a gorgeous contrast between the white plate, dark, almost black mole and crema drizzle. It was a plate that was almost too beautiful to eat. Each empanada had been filled with slightly starchy, slightly sweet plantain which was a good match for the mole. The empanadas had been ordered by the vegetarian in the group and she assured me she enjoyed them.

3 thick masa boats topped with black beans, achiote marinated shredded pork and pickled red onions made up the Sopecitos Yucatecos. This was probably the most substantial dish we ordered and I think it would probably be best as a shared appetizer. Though very good, it was a lot of food.

For the adverturous, there is the Tostada de Pulpo; a herb marinated octopus with cilantro dressing topping a fried tortilla.A quick look at the dinner menu shows most entrees in the $15 - $25 range and fewer of the taco/burrito/enchilada genre and more latitude with the creativity.

The interior of Casa de Madera is dark woods and heavy furniture. It works and is complemented by a wall of running water and colorful Diego Rivera style mural. I like the space and found it warm, inviting and relaxing. Open for only 2 1/2 weeks, Casa de Madera appears to be trying to appeal to a mass cross section of patrons; but, the flavors and concept, if not completely authentic, are close and the quality of everything we had very good. Don't go expecting chips and salsa, giant margaritas or gem-tone colors and folk art, you won't find it. I have been in restaurants in Mexico that looked and felt an awful lot like this one, and the food while not traditionally authentic, is good and can evoke memories of Mexico. If Casa de Madera is trying to fill the void left by Chilango's they may just be successful

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  1. DiningDiva, do you know there is business hours ? Especially how long they are open in the evening. I am looking for a place to eat after the Michael Pollan lecture on Tuesday and Casa de Madera sound very good.

    4 Replies
    1. re: honkman

      I was thinking of going to that lecture too (although he is also here for a convention roundtable) but was thinking the ONLY places to go afterwards were the Linkery or Mama Testa (i.e. places that are trying to be more sustainable!).

      1. re: honkman

        I'm sorry, I don't know. We asked for a card and they didn't have any. They let me take a menu with me and it is, I'm sure, a temporary one and has no details. Given where it's located I'd guess that it's probably open till around 10 PM.

        1. re: honkman

          I'm going too - but will probably try to grab a bite before hand. Anyone have any brilliant ideas for a place to get a good quick meal nearby? I don't think there's much in that neighborhood - UTC and the Shores aren't too far though.

          1. re: Alice Q

            How about Cuvee ? The few times I was there for lunch it was very good and it is not far away from the Institute


        2. Yay! I am glad you went! We will for sure be stopping by and I am glad that the view from 5th (the nice warm woods that seemed inviting) echoed the rest of the restuarant.

          1 Reply
          1. re: jturtle

            Madera means "wood" in Spanish and they've definitely used the wood to their interior design advantage :-)

          2. This place sounds really interesting. Thanks for the write-up!

            1. Well, the Dining Diva, Chilepm, and I descended upon this lovely location for dinner this evening. My first thought was rather cliche - I love what they've done with the place! It's beautiful!

              We started off at the bar which was quite a thrill for me - quality tequila and the aroma of leather gets me every time. Yes, both the bar and the walls were layered with wood and leather, making it very warm and inviting. I tried the Don Fernando reposado (the bartender's recommendation), and it's probably the smoothest tequila I've ever had.

              Now, I'm not great at remembering menu items, so I'll let my adventurous dining companions fill in the gaps. I do know we were served three salsas with tortilla chips. The chips were fresh and crispy, and two of the salsas (the two mildest, one of which was green) were quite good. The third salsa was ancho based, and we all agreed that, though it had a nice bite, it was lacking in something (DD pinpointed it, stating salt and lime would help). We ordered an appetizer of cheese - maybe asadero? - that was served in an oregano oil-based sauce and accompanied by fresh corn tortillas. Pardon me for sounding cliche once again, but it was to die for!

              Ironically, we all ordered a seafood entree. I wish I could tell you what Chilepm had - something with poblano chiles - but I was too busy devouring the Crepes Langosta I ordered. I do know DD had Camarones, which were served with two sauces - one mango based and the other tamarind based. The latter was stellar. I will have to say the sauces seem to be a crowning glory here, and the chef definitely knows how to marry them with food. Mine was so good, I used a tortilla to sop up the remaining sauce on my plate. We were quite satisfied with our entrees, and DD and I decided to order dessert. She had the Arroz con Leche, and I tried the flan. I can't tell you how the rice dessert was because I've never been a big fan of rice used in desserts, but she said it was good. The flan was tasty but not really "flan". It was more like cheesecake. Good, but not what I was expecting.

              I must comment that the waitstaff was very courteous and attentive without being overbearing. DD spoke to one gentleman who stated their business has been fairly brisk, even though it was a bit slow this evening. When she asked our server about Chilepm's sauce, she promptly excused herself and brought out the chef (Yvette). She understood English, but spoke only Spanish - exactly the opposite of the three of us - so this worked as she explained her process and DD asked questions. Another nice note: they make their tortillas on site, and they're GOOD!

              We did take a couple of pictures with my cell phone, which I'll upload if they came out, but I recommend you check the place out for yourselves. As DD stated above, you can make a meal of their appetizers, but don't overlook the entrees, particularly the specialties. I don't think you'll be disappointed.

              11 Replies
              1. re: phee

                I am fast loosing objectivity with this restaurant. I LOVE it. Phee is right, the combination of wood and leather on the walls, dark heavy furniture, beautfiul floor tiles and a Deigo Rivera knock mural into which Che, Sub Commandante Marcos, Ceasare Chavez and the UFW have been somehow oddly, but remarkably appropriately, inserted is wonderful.

                Here is what we actually ate

                Queso Oregano - a good sized round of queso fresco that had been heated through, plated and then drenched with good olive oil and crushed Mexican oregano (which is in the lemon verbena family). It was served with house made corn tortillas, and I think I can honestly say these are the best corn tortillas I've had in San Diego. They were plush, velvety, pliable and utterly seductive.

                Chilepm had a marisco stuffed chile relleno which was served in a light tomato broth that had been made with a basic mire poix (carrots, celery and onion) a bit of garlic and fresh jitomate (tomato). The relleno was made correctly with a fresh poblano, not an anaheim chile and a lot of dorado (mahi-mahi). It was a little light on the mariscos - seafood - but the chef said that would change once they got past grand opening. I got a bite and can honestly say it was very, very good.

                I had shrimp with 2 sauces. The mango sauce was tasty but a bit sweet for me, but that's a personal preference. The tamarind sauce was a great match with the shrimp. And these were HUGE shrimps, at least U-15s and they were perfectly cooked with no hint of rubberiness.

                Phee's laboster crepes were fantastic and they didn't scrimp on the lobster. If I recall her sauce was made from ancho chiles and pine nuts and it was about as good as it gets. Phee graciously allowed me to help her sop up the extra sauce with one of those luscious corn tortillas and *that* was a heavenly combination. Very simple but very elegant at the same time. The essence of what Mexican sauces are all about..suave, subtle, layers of flavor.

                Arroz con leche was served in a large martini glass and was soft and comforting but probably could have been better by the addition of a little more vanilla and some lime. The flan wasn't flan, but it did taste good and the portion wasn't overwhelming.

                Since they are still in soft opening mode so the staff is soliciting feedback on their meals. They are very open to suggestion and really do seem to genuinely want to know how the meal was and what they could do to improve. They're grand opening is in a couple of weeks, go now. Get something that comes with those great corn tortillas served as an accompaniment.

                Oh, and do say hi to Lily the bartendress and have a Don Fernando (sans sangrita), I have to agree with Phee again on this. It's possibly the smoothest tequila I've ever had, possibly because it's aged in French oak barrels that had once been used for aging chardonnay.

                As I said, I'm loosing my perspective here...

                1. re: DiningDiva

                  Chilepm here, adding an aside:
                  On the advice of the Dining Diva, I joined the DD for dinner last night at La Madrona. She was excited to see a Mexican restaurant that served more than the usual tacos, rice and beans and wanted us to join her.
                  I was the first to arrive and sat at the small bar in the front of the house. In my estimation this bar will become a local watering hole and won’t be nearly large enough accommodate it’s popularity. The accommodating and friendly bartender, Lily, is a definite asset to the house. She knows the food and knows the booze, is friendly and unobtrusive. The bar menu is definitely over the top with it’s wild creative concoctions but given the neighborhood and the young, adventurous clientele it will probably be a big success. I choose a simplified version of their ‘sidecar’, which means I had a cognac and tuaca less the other 2 or 3 ingredients that made up the printed description. It was plenty powerful, not contradictory and didn’t dilute my appetite. When the DD arrived, followed shortly by La Dama, they both ordered reposado tequila drinks. After sampling a sip, I agreed it was better than fine. We were served chips with a trio of chile salsas. The arbol salsa a bit bitter and we all agreed it needed a bit of citric acid and more salt. The red chile salsa was ok, the green was very good.
                  The restaurant itself is long and narrow, clubby looking with a charming mural depicting Mexican life and caricatures of famous historical, legendary and mythical figures and occupies the entire back wall. There are outside tables along the landscaped perimeter of the restaurant with comfortable looking seats spaced far enough apart to be enjoyed with a modicum of privacy. These seats are bound to be the preferred choices in warm weather.
                  Being a Monday night, the house was not exceptionally busy. There were maybe five other occupied tables.
                  The three of us shared an appetizer of baked queso fresca flavored with mild Mexican oregano. A simplified variation of the popular queso fundido and served with excellent homemade tortillas. Every bit as dangerous as good bread. I had to restrain myself.
                  We all ordered seafood choices, DD had HUGE shrimp with 2 excellent sauces and Phee the lobster crepes. I had enough to handle so didn't taste theirs.
                  My entrée choice was a mixed seafood stuffed poblano chile with a mild vegetable based sauce that didn’t overpower the fire of the chile, served with excellent rice. Portion size was civilized. I would order it again. We opted to share dessert. DD ordered arroz con leche or rice pudding and La Dama the flan. The rice would have been enhanced by raisins and the flan was more of a cheese cake than a custard. I’m not a dessert person but thought capriotada would have been a nice addition to a real Mexican menu. The lady chef cruised the dining room and stopped by our table to chat…in Spanish. We all understood most of what she said, with the Dining Diva’s help. The menu is a work in progress and they are open to suggestions in both the bar and the restaurant. Service was adequate, we had a lot of different people attending the table at different times but was never cloying and at no time rushed. We were there 4 hours!
                  In all, it was a memorable evening in a very comfortable space.
                  Given the demise of Chilango’s, I think this place is definitely an asset to the neighborhood and the city itself, filling a big void and affording a welcome option for diversity. I wouldn’t hesitate to take visitors here or return alone.

                  1. re: P Macias

                    OOPS! Perdon. La Casa de Madera. what a typo!

                  2. re: DiningDiva

                    Cut to the chase if you will and tell us if it's an adequate replacement to Chilango's, or, how it rates on the Chilango's scale if you will.

                    1. re: deckape

                      It's better than Chilangos. They're attempting to do Mexican alta-cocina and while you'll find some traditional foods on the menu, i.e. chimis and fajitas, it's not the food they're aiming to serve.

                      If you're looking for taqueria or combo plate Mexican, this isn't it. I'm not prepared to say they're equal to Laja, but that's the path they're trying to travel. After only 3 weeks in business they're certainly not there yet, but that's the aspiration.

                    2. re: DiningDiva

                      As chowhounds we sometimes tend to be lemmings. When one lemming jumps over a cliff (and seems to survive it) we other chowhound lemmings sometimes tend to follow blindly. So when our mexican lemming DiningDiva recently found this new cliff “Casa de Madera” my wife and I decide to follow her and also jump. Sometimes you jump and end up in a pile of manure but there are also times when you land in a beautiful oasis. And Casa de Madera is exactly this. It is a very relaxing, beautiful little restaurant. We started with the tortilla chips and three different salsas. The two milder ones were very good, the more spicy (arbol ?) was ok. We both shared an appetizer of flat, hard tacos filled with octopus (forgot the name). The octopus was very tender and nicely marinated. As entrees we both decided on the grilled sea bass with small potatoes, rice and a green cilantro based sauce. Luckily there were enough excellent tortillas to sop up this great sauce. The fish was perfect, not too dry and overcooked. As dessert we shared a dessert sampler with arroz con leche, flan, crepes and something which reminded us on the famous Fasnachtskuechli (carnival cookie, pastry from Basel/Switzerland). Overall it was a great dinner. (And the fourth great dinner we had in the last six days. Life can be so good sometimes.) The only downside was that we felt rushed because the appetizer and entrees came too fast but we asked to slow down before the dessert. They are currently trying to eliminate all problems and will have their grand opening in three weeks but it was not a good sign that the restaurant was pretty much empty the whole time (only six other customers in 90 minutes). There were quite a few people looking outside on the menu but decided not to come in and I think the problem is that most people expect similar prices as with other mexican restaurants in SD. Casa de Madera is more expensive but we are talking about Mexcian food cooked on a much more sophisticated level than you will find anywhere else in SD. We really hope they can spread the word and attract enough customers to survive.
                      I can only say: Chowhound lemmings don’t be afraid to jump, you won’t be disappointed.

                      1. re: honkman

                        Perhaps they will have more business after the "grand opening," especially once reviews are in. I certainly hope so.

                    3. re: phee

                      I wish I could have overheard that conversation. Three gringos carrying on a conversation with the chef, speaking English and getting answers in Spanish? Priceless!
                      Though really I wish I were there for the food.
                      Chowdown, anyone?

                      1. re: Joseph

                        Sounds good--you should set that up!

                        1. re: Joseph

                          Joseph, the chef - Yvette - understand English reasonably well but isn't comfortable speaking it. I understand Spanish reasonably well but am not always comfortable speaking it. She understood my Spanish and I understood her English. When she was describing the sauce used on the chile relleno de mariscos she was using Spanish. We were using both languages but, oddly, not Spanglish.

                          I'm sure we could do a chow function there, but I'll warn everyone right up front, this place is not inexpensive. Most apps are in the $8-10 range, entrees in the $18-24 range, though the Cal Mex items are less.

                      2. Is this in the same place that (apparently) used to be the Bombay indian restaurant? When you mentioned the location combined with the dark woods and wall of water it would be surprising if there were two restaurants in that location with similar decor.

                        2 Replies
                        1. re: mliew

                          I think it used to be some version of Bombay, but it's directly across the street from Kemo Sabe and Bombay. The restaurant is, in fact, a sister resto to Bombay and the Monsoon Restaurant Group. And no, I am not an employee and know no one in their organization. I've had 2 very good meals in the space of 10 days there and they're doing a very good job with non-traditional Mexican food.

                          1. re: DiningDiva

                            Didn't our waitperson also tell us the owner is putting in a dessert cafe where the Starbuck's is/was on the same block?