When Bill Veremis closed his restaurant in Rosemont, he had a big plan: to convince the owners of Casa Bonita to sell. They did, and now under Veremis' ownership and with a new menu, the restaurant is flourishing in downtown Libertyville's already-thriving dining scene. The menu sticks to traditional Mexican fare with a modern update to many of the dishes, all accompanied by a large list of drinks from the full bar. Try the tequila flight; it was a hit at several tables around us.
We went at 6:15 p.m. on a Saturday, and by the time we got there, the wait was already topping two hours. Thanks to our reservation, we didn't have to stay in the cramped entrance space with all the other diners waiting; instead we were promptly shown to our table under festive party lights in the main dining room. The restaurant's footprint hasn't changed, so the space is still big with a large patio heated to 75 degrees year-round, but the crowd inside was a little cramped and really loud. Be prepared to yell to be heard and to feel the heat of bodies packed in together.
Casa Bonita633 N. Milwaukee Ave., Libertyville, (847) 362-4400, casabonitalibertyville.com/
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday
We started with the fundido appetizer, a Chihuahua cheese dip mixed with chorizo and pico de gallo, served with your choice of flour or corn tortillas. As far as queso fundido dip goes, it was pretty standard. The cheese was nice and stretchy, and although I would have enjoyed more chorizo, the flavor mixed well throughout the dish. We also enjoyed both the complimentary red and green salsa and chips. The green salsa was a table favorite, sweet and tangy, and the red is more traditional with a spicy kick.
We ordered a few specialty drinks as well: horchata and sangria. The horchata was just as good, if not better, than the version I had in Mexico City. Try asking for it without ice; once the ice melts, it's too watered down and less appetizing. It was the opposite for the sangria, though. Before the ice melted, it was too acidic; afterward the flavor was perfect.
For entrees, we ordered the pollo en rajas, chicken fajitas, skirt steak chimichanga, banana tilapia and a taco salad with chicken. My nephew ordered the chicken fingers, and we were all impressed. No compressed chicken nuggets here -- these were hand-cut strips fried to perfection. The pollo en rajas (chicken sautéed with jalapeños and Spanish onions, topped with a creamy chipotle sauce and served with tortillas) is best described as a curry with Mexican spices. The flavors blended well together and the meat was tender and juicy. Enough of this made it home as leftovers that I can confidently say it's delicious the next day, too.
My chicken fajitas arrived on a sizzling platter with onions and red and green peppers. The chef did a great job on the vegetables -- they were sautéed and still cooking on the platter, but also still crisp enough to have a good bite with each fajita. I would have personally liked more seasoning on the meat, but it wasn't overpowering and still tasted great.
The chimichanga and taco salad were both higher-level versions of the standards found at Mexican restaurants. For the chimichanga, the steak was tender and flavorful, and the chimichanga itself was stuffed full of the meat and cheese. We did ask for no beans, but they still served them to us accidentally. The taco salad comes in a tortilla bowl and is a deceptively large amount of food. If you dump it out onto a plate like we did, it fills it up and then some.
The banana tilapia (pan-roasted tilapia with bananas, a white wine sauce and coconut rice) was a real standout. Its presentation was phenomenal, and the entire dish seemed to meld island sweetness with Mexican-style cooking. The fish had a nice crust and all the flavors worked perfectly together, which surprised us all.
For dessert we ordered the fried ice cream (it was relatively standard, still good but nothing super-special), flan (dense with a great flavor and a huge portion), and the table favorite, the chocolate churros rolled in cinnamon sugar. They were crisp on the outside, chewy on the inside, and exploded with Mexican chocolate flavor. We loved them.
Service under the new ownership is top-notch. Instead of letting my sister-in-law order for my 4-year-old nephew, our waiter actually crouched down on the floor next to him and engaged him in a conversation. Management was running around the restaurant as well, taking and delivering orders, cleaning as necessary, and checking on everyone even though it was very crowded. It was nice to see the employees and management really taking an interest in the business.
• Restaurant reviews are based on one anonymous visit. The Daily Herald does not publish reviews of restaurants it cannot recommend.