Libertyville's Casa Bonita cooks up homey Mexican fare
Mi casa, su casa -- my house is your house -- is a welcoming Spanish phrase that fits the atmosphere at Casa Bonita in downtown Libertyville.
An attractive hacienda-style dining room with hand-painted wall murals sets the scene for a homey meal. The bar side of the large room replicates the more casual feel of a beach-side cantina. Weather permitting, sidewalk seating gives diners an open-air option.
After being greeted and seated by the hostess, a server quickly brought over a basket of freshly made chips with two salsas. Both salsas were relatively mild: the pico de gallo -- a classic mixture of fresh tomatoes, onion, garlic, cilantro, jalapeño and lime juice -- and the smoky chipotle, providing an interesting contrast of flavors.
There were enough chips to accompany the guacamole we ordered, which was presented in an edible hard taco shell bowl. A house specialty, this creamy-textured version was mildly flavored and wonderfully fresh.
Several other botanas (appetizers) are available, including a combination platter of shredded beef flautas (tortillas stuffed and deep-fried), chicken quesadillas and ground beef nachos with sour cream, all intended to serve at least four. A Mexican version of shrimp cocktail, served with avocado slices and chips or saltines, is a popular favorite.
The large menu makes selecting entrees challenging. Among the items designated as Casa Bonita's house specialties are steak relleno, grilled skirt steak stuffed with Gulf shrimp, sweet peppers, grilled onions, mushrooms and cheese; and pescado Yucatan-style, red snapper filet wrapped in a banana leaf and baked with onions, tomatoes and sweet peppers.
After much perusing, I chose the trio of enchiladas -- corn tortilla-wrapped chicken, cheese and seasoned ground beef, all topped with melted Chihuahua cheese. The chicken came with ranchero sauce, the beef with salsa Verde and the cheese with mole.
Presentation on a large oval platter with refried beans, golden Mexican rice and shredded lettuce left no space between the enchiladas, causing the sauces to run together somewhat. I most enjoyed the cheese with salsa Verde -- a tangy sauce based on tomatillos -- and also the beef with mole. All sauces were medium in heat, which suits the palates of many of us who grew up on more bland cuisines.
My companion chose tacos al pastor in flour tortillas -- grilled chunks of marinated pork loin, onions and cilantro, accompanied by guacamole as well as the ubiquitous refried beans and rice. This choice is another Mexican classic I've often enjoyed, but the pork was rather dry. Adding salsa from our first course pepped up the flavor.
Saving a little room for dessert from the five choices, we shared one order of pastel de tres leches, the traditional white cake made with three milks (none of them fat-free, by the way). A drizzle of dark chocolate and a strawberry accent made a pretty presentation, and the cake was perfect -- moist and rich -- best savored in small portions.
Coffee was disappointing, not tasting freshly ground, and cups were not kept refilled. Otherwise, service was efficient, if a bit rushed.
Tequilas are the house specialty, with 10 versions of margaritas and a long list of brands. The mostly high-quality sipping tequilas include a premium list of those aged longer than three years and priced from $15 to $45 a shot.
Non-tequila drinkers have a wide choice of other liquors, beers and a few wines.
Casa Bonita is a good choice when you feel like taking a taste trip without the cost of airfare.
• Reviews are based on one anonymous visit. The Daily Herald does not review restaurants it cannot recommend.
Casa Bonita633 N. Milwaukee Ave., Libertyville, (847) 362-4400, casabonitalibertyville.com
Setting: Hacienda-style dining room adjoining a beach bar replica
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday