At first glance, Casa Alvarez might as well be decorated exclusively in red flags. It occupies the back corner location of a 30th Street strip mall and has an interior that looks like every Mexican restaurant in every town, with light pastel coloring and tile, overly harsh lighting and awkward attempts to recreate a jungle atmosphere inside. Though I didn’t see a ceramic parrot anywhere, I kept looking for one.
That boilerplate continued with the arrival of the salsa, which had that overly red, nearly ketchup feel of generic Mexican restaurants country-wide.
But dig a little deeper, and there are some really standout qualities.
The first you might notice (since it’s on the way in the front door) is the unexpectedly killer patio. Though it isn’t visible until you get close, the entranceway is recessed from the parking lot with a large domed roof lined with skylights that fill the patio with gentle, filtered sunbeams. A low wall at the patio’s edge blocks the view of the parking lot and this soft-light paradise is pointed directly at the Flatirons. Well played, Señor Alvarez, wherever you may be.
The next place Casa Alavarez stands out is in some of the menu choices. Sure, it’s based around the same menu that seems to be shipped out to every Mexican restaurant in bulk from Sysco with a blank space to be filled in next to the word “Casa” on the masthead, but tucked in-between are some gems. Regularly made menudo. Mole lamb. Cactus in red chile. And an unexpectedly wide selection of vegetarian tacos.
Picking from the last can also yield some pleasant results.
As much as M. Knight Shyamalan likes twist endings, I like combo plates. It’s the best dish smattering this side of a smorgasbord. But all too often, the things being combined ain’t so hot, which is why they’re vended in tandem to begin with. Not the case with Casa Alvarez. Its chili relleno — my barometer for Mexican food — gets high marks, with little bitterness in the pepper and a nice batter that didn’t flake off when chomped upon. The green chili atop the shredded enchilada was leaps and bounds beyond standard enchilada sauce. The one shortcoming was the taco, which came in a hardshell with unmelted shredded cheese as if Casa Alvarez were some sort of Taco Bell (read that last part in a Mr. Howell accent, por favor). My dining companion’s array of veggie tacos arrived similarly. The other option was to have them served on flour tortillas, which, even while acknowledging the great tortilla schism that exists between taquerias and sit-downs, are still the Gary Cherone-era Van Halen of tortillas.
And there are other remaining vestiges of everytownness. Though the lamb was a nice touch, the mole that topped it wasn’t much to write home — or a column — about, and Casa Alvarez’s beans (refried or black — seriously, what’s a critic gotta do to get some spiced, whole pintos in this burg?) ain’t much to look at, or snack on, but they certainly came on the side.
And though it’s hard to quantify specifically, on the whole, Casa Alvarez feels generally a little more expensive than it ought to be, especially for the sort of sunlit late lunch that the patio is perfect for. But wait a little longer until early evening and eat your combo platter in the fading light of a sunset on the Flatirons, and your problem is solved.
Like almost everything, Casa Alvarez isn’t perfect. But despite snapjudgements, it’s not the generic Mexican restaurant it initially appears to be.