It might be a good idea to stop the revolving door at 15 N. Butler St. with its latest tenant, Las Cazuelas.
It's been noted that this is not a spot that's been good to restaurateurs over the years. Yet with a triangle of restaurants clustered around the city's Brayton parking lot - Las Cazuelas, Bellini's and the Bayou (plus, just a few doors further down Butler, Cafe Costa Rica), this sometimes overlooked area of downtown may have critical mass in terms of a dining destination. Call it TriABray.
In many ways, Las Cazuelas is a good fit between cuisine and restaurant space. A fireplace and the wood-burning oven (left from its incarnation as Cafe Porta Alba), coupled with low ceilings and walls painted maize yellow and terracotta, give the new Mexican restaurant an almost casita-like atmosphere. "Las cazuelas" means something like a cooking pot or a casserole dish, and a distinctive ceramic version is used here both to decorate the room and to serve the complimentary chips and salsa.
Las Cazuelas has two menus: a lunch version focusing on salads, quesadillas, burritos, enchiladas and tacos; and a more extensive dinner menu, with a dozen entrees plus four house specialties made in the wood-burning oven.
The items made in the wood oven are the first to go for. Both the pollo rostisado, a roasted whole chicken served with potatoes, and the chamorro, a pork shank with mole, are probably best split between two diners. There's also a lamb barbacoa, but I liked the cochinita pibil, a slow-roasted marinated pork dish where the meat is traditionally wrapped in a banana leaf.
The meat is very tender, rubbed with achiote (a spice paste that lends a red color and a very gentle burn to the flavor) and topped with marinated red onions and slices of jalapeño. Roll some of the meat, a few jalapeños and slivers of onion in a flour tortilla; the sharp, almost citrusy tang of the vegetables contrasts with the mellow pork.
Despite the jalapeños, the overall effect isn't fiery, but the dish has a subtly smoky pull. It's also a large portion, more meat than I needed for a meal, but it was good, maybe even better, as a leftover. Warning - this is a greasy dish (not that I particularly minded).
There's plenty to investigate among the rest of the dinner entrees. The pescado a la veracruzana features a substantial tilapia filet sautéed with tomatoes, cilantro and capers. The customary green olives seemed to be missing, but even so, the flavors balanced nicely. That was also true for the camarones al mojo de ajo, a dozen shrimp in a lively salsa.
The caldo doña Julia, described on the menu as a hearty beef and vegetable stew, was more like a hearty beef and vegetable soup - tender beef and potatoes in a cilantro-flecked broth with quite a kick that came from smoky guajillo chilies. This was a truly wonderful dish, although at $15, a little expensive for a bowl of soup.
Lunch was not always as successful. A combo plate of a chile relleno and a tamale came with a side of very creamy refried pinto beans (a style I love) and moist-but-not-greasy rice with bits of cilantro, corn and peas. A trace of cinnamon pepped up the tamale (served without a corn husk). The chile relleno, made with a sweet pepper, coupled with a very light batter, made for a satisfying take on a favorite, even though the sauce seemed sweeter and thicker than is the norm for a ranchero.
But on return visits, chicken enchiladas were bland, along with the rice and the beans. The tacos de cuitlacoche, with a filling of the black fungus that grows on corn, had a slight tang from sautéed onions, but the earthy flavor of the cuitlacoche was dwarfed by its having been wrapped in two softshell tacos, an unfortunate culinary overkill.
So far, Las Cazuelas has shown itself to be more than just a restaurant that's convenient for state workers in the GEF buildings to go for lunch. But improving the simpler menu items could be a smart strategy at lunchtime, especially considering that there's new competition nearby with the opening of La Mestiza in the former Subway spot at 121 E. Main St.