Review: Casa Hacienda Grill

From the December 7, 2011 edition

Because Mexican restaurants in Columbus nowadays are so old hat, it takes some special attributes to separate one from the burgeoning and undistinguished pack. Fortunately, I’m here to report on a standout, brand-new salsa maker that offers above-average flourishes it can proudly hang its sombrero on.

If Casa Hacienda Grill on 161 is a tad overnamed, it certainly doesn’t underperform. Well-informed fans of its predecessor (CHG shares ownership and staff members with the beloved former Hacienda Real) won’t be surprised to hear that.

But they might be startled by CHG’s locally unique — and wildly captivating — design scheme. Riffing on an expansive Spanish ranch house, CHG flaunts an all-encompassing series of arched windows imprinted with bas relief metal horse heads and horseshoes.

Yet it’s inside where this place really shines — literally. See, to enter CHG is to be transported to an Eye-Candyland of obsessively applied tile work. Here, the famous Mexican penchant for all-over artworks finds near hallucinatory expression in colorful and beautiful Mexican tiles on walls, domed ceilings and even inlaid on wooden booth tables, themselves carved with wagon wheels and sporting cowboy-covered fabric. Throw in a few fake parrots, a faux-tropical courtyard and horseshoe- and lasso-decorated carpet, and you’ve got yourself quite a fun and fanciful setting.

Foodwise, instead of just generic chips and salsa, CHG goes the extra mile and provides a very nice — and free — finely grated vinegar-based slaw and warm refried bean dip to sink your freshly fried tortilla chips into. Still, it’s CHG’s terrific handmade tortillas — also free with every meal — that alone would make a stopover here worth the trip.

If you’ve never had ’em, you should know that warm and fresh tortillas are real game changers. As expected, CHG’s corn variety had a deep, toasty masa flavor, but its exceptional flour tortillas — dense, flabby and brown-speckled — were the best I’ve had since my last visit to Mexico.

They went great with the zingy Pork Con Nopales ($11). This was a lively and pleasantly spicy stew made with tomato plus strands of tender pulled pork, onion, green peppers and tangy, de-fanged cactus strips. I liked how the dish’s deep flavors were happily married. I also liked its sides of well-above-average refried beans and rice as well as its way-above-average portion size.

Actually several meals here were on the whopping side. Take the eminently sharable Camarones Monterrey ($16), for instance. Ladled up on a giant serving platter (not uncommon here) were a sea of very decent seared shrimp wrapped in crispy bacon. The irresistible shellfish were further flavored with buttery sauteed onions and peppers plus a heavy-handed blanket of melted cheese. These came with those nice rice and beans plus good-tasting (if unnecessarily pureed) guacamole.

Also large and in charge was the Mole Ranchero ($12). Half a chicken came in a thinnish but interesting enough mole sauce with a hint of cinnamon, a pronounced sweetness and a countering and cumulative chili sting. The dinner was served with — surprise! — rice, beans and those killer tortillas.

While the Relleno Mexicano ($11) — as only a single, cheese-stuffed chili pepper — was considerably smaller and therefore less of a deal, it did implement a fairly authentically eggy batter. I’d call that yet another reason to tip your hat to the solid new Casa Hacienda Grill.

Photos by Jodi Miller