Claremont’s Casa Moreno: Go for the Food, Stay for the Drinks

There is certainly no shortage of places around L.A. County to sample Mexican cuisine. Trucks roam the valley by the hundreds, dispensing al pastor tacos sliced freshly off the trampo spit, Mom-and-Pop, hole-in-the-wall institutions fill diners with carne asada burritos and chicken enchiladas, and little gems from Santa Monica to Pomona offer samplings of Mexico’s regional specialities: Oaxaca’s mole, Jalisco’s goat, and the Yucatan’s cochinita pibil.

Claremont’s mainstays for tacos and burritos, Patty’s and Juanita’s, are deservedly well-loved and often the subject of more heated debate between 5C students than Stags vs. Sagehens. Yet, shockingly, despite having what seems to be a dozen Italian restaurants, the village did not have a full-scale Mexican restaurant until Casa Moreno arrived this past summer. The second location of the longstanding Covina favorite, Casa Moreno at first seemed deserving of its high-traffic location by the Laemmle Theater. Unfortunately, the restaurant has proven to be a stale, formulaic, overpriced disappointment. The food’s execution is banal, the service lacks any polish, and the décor would fit right in at T.G.I. Friday’s in Wichita.

I was thrilled to hear that Casa Moreno served the classic Oaxacan dish mole negro, a dish that, when performed perfectly at La Casita Mexicana in Bell or even Hacienda del Sol in Paris (yes, Paris), provides a thick, robust culinary symphony of flavors, beautifully weaving 20 to 30 ingredients into the mix of sauces. Mole is possibly the most mesmerizing sauce in the Mexican canon, but the version at Casa Moreno reminds me more of the version of mole negro I once made using a boxed mix and water—except the boxed version may have been superior.

Casa Moreno’s mole is watery rather than thick and rich as it should be, and only has vague hints of the pantry-load of spices that usually makes mole so special. The mole negro comes atop a somewhat dry breast of chicken. If you’ve already been to Casa Moreno and this happened to be your introduction to mole, please don’t lose faith. Trust me, mole can be a truly spiritual taste experience when it receives the attention it needs.

Chile relleno is considered the specialty of the kitchen and fares much better than the mole, with a slightly soggy fried pasilla pepper filled with oozing cheese. It’s hard to go wrong with fried cheese, but make sure to liven it up with the salsa on the table or the dish gets monotonous. The guacamole served with the relleno is satisfying with its obvious bounty of fresh avocado, but it lacks any sort of dimension from lime, cheese, or spices. Enchiladas share menu space with chile verde and arroz con pollo—a grilled chicken breast atop Spanish rice that might just be the most boring dish known to man. On the other hand, meat lovers will enjoy the gigantic mound of carnitas, the lightly fried chicken or beef milanesa, or the Lipitor special of carne asada grilled with bacon, onions, peppers, and guacamole, topped with a healthy load of cheese.

The best starter is the trio of al pastor tacos, which, like the mole, are not authentically done, but are decent nonetheless. Al pastor is achiote-marinated pork that is roasted on a spit like a Middle Eastern shawarma, topped with a pineapple whose juices mingle with the anchiote for an otherworldly, sweet-salty taste sensation.

Casa Moreno’s version is perfectly tender and complemented nicely by a refreshingly cool cucumber green salsa. The usual array of flautas and taquitos will also fill you up before you’ve even started on your super burrito or fajitas, while the ceviche offers a lighter option.

Tostada salads, fish tacos, and other conventional dishes similarly crowd the entree list, but a few non-traditional dishes suggest some inspiration—especially the sea bass with shrimp, stuffed with cheese and wrapped in bacon, or tilapia Veracruzana.

Meals come with the usual bland Spanish rice and beans that never fail to amaze me with their dull persistence. Flour and corn tortillas arrive warm but suspiciously wrapped in foil, as if part of an airplane meal. Not even a sumo wrestler could have enough room for Moreno’s monster servings of flan, churros, or the delicious-looking bread pudding offered for dessert.

With the hit-or-miss food, it may be wiser to just to stop in for a margarita from the extensive tequila bar. The margaritas are the highlights of the dining experience, anyway: although the house margarita is strangely flavored with a splash of orange, it’s tasty nonetheless, and (bonus!) served in an almost goblet-sized wine glass. The pathetic sprinkling of salt on the rim of the glass was only slightly disturbing; I wondered briefly if it had already been used.

Another mystery is the restaurant’s complete lack of music, which renders the tequila-fueled atmosphere oddly subdued. The only sign of life inside the restaurant is the bar, where the best seats are located on the outside patio overlooking the fountain plaza that now seems to serve as Claremont’s town square.

Service was also a little questionable. The hostess led my group to a dirty table at the start of the meal even though the restaurant was far from full—I later realized that none of the other empty tables were cleaned yet, either. The waitstaff seemed more excited about the Top 40 DJ dance party coming up that night (it was Thursday night; I guess this is Claremont’s TNC) than keeping my meal flowing smoothly. When asked what was in the special house salsa, the waitress replied “I don’t know, tomatoes?” Ten minutes after our orders were taken, another server swooped in and asked if we were ready to order, even though our menus were gone. The entrees arrived before the appetizer plates were even taken away. Improvements need to be made here—even after two margaritas, diners want some modicum of organized, refined service.

Casa Moreno has the potential to be a true hit. Yet in Southern California, where excellent tacos and mole are often as easy to find as freeway traffic, this restaurant needs to step it up. Sure, with a few margaritas the food can be downright delicious, but Casa Moreno needs to look beyond the poorly salted rim.

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