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Sunday, December 28, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 19.0° F  Fair
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Casa del Sol in Fitchburg marries innovation and faithful standards
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Credit:Peter Patau

There are restaurants you go to for a quick bite, and restaurants you to go for an ethereal, transcendent experience. Somewhere in between lie those restaurants that you can always count on to serve a reliably decent meal. It might be off once in a blue moon, it may even be great on occasion, but you almost always leave feeling satisfied. All of us have these old faithfuls in our dining lineup.

For me, Casa del Sol is that kind of restaurant. When this spot, formerly the Fitchburg branch of Casa de Lara, changed ownership (and name) last year, the menu did a bit of blossoming. Some fusion popped up (Mexican cheesesteaks and a version of steak Milanese, for example), as did a crop of unique entrees. Fortunately, the bedrock - burritos, enchiladas, fajitas and the like - was still there, solid and comforting. Those basics are what keep many of Casa del Sol's patrons coming back for more.

In addition to dependable food, another requirement of a standby is that it fits your time tolerance for getting a table. At the 5,000-square-foot Casa del Sol, you will surely never have a problem with this. The one place you might be S.O.L. is trying to get a seat on the patio on a sunny day. Still, even that's usually not a problem, and it's well worth the effort, with a deck overlooking a sparkling pond and a big swath of blue overhead.

Meals begin with a basket of chips topped with pickled carrots and onions. The guacamole is a worthy addition, a sizable serving in a large stone bowl. The tomato soup is garnished attractively with thick, crisp tortilla strips and a dab of sour cream, but on a recent visit the flavor was two-dimensional and the texture unappealingly viscous. The posole, on the other hand, was excellent, with large bites of hominy and pork. Another good appetizer is the hot, moist homemade cornbread served with a lovely but unnecessary guava jelly. The fresh cornbread's mild sweetness was delicious on its own.

As I mentioned earlier, all the standards are winners. The shredded beef enchiladas are filled with tender meat, and the burritos are gigantic. The burrito tropical is one of the best, a giant edifice filled with flavorful pork and topped with fruit salsa. In fact, almost every dish at Casa del Sol is enough for two meals, which makes the already reasonable prices that much better.

The more focused entrees are all at least adequate, with some good and great moments. The chimichanga mediterranea, stuffed with shrimp and whitefish and covered with a cheesy cream sauce, was rich and a little sweet, lacking a flavor or texture counterpoint to balance the heaviness.

The day's special, pork carnitas in a poblano-avocado-cream sauce, was better, the meat having more chew to it than anything inside the chimichanga.

The steak alambre is the dish I'd order again. The Angus strips came to the table in a sizzling pan with grilled onions, bell peppers, bits of bacon and Oaxaca cheese, all ready to be rolled in a tortilla. The Angus was readily distinguishable from a tougher flank or skirt steak, and cooked perfectly. All vegetables, whether in an entree or on the side, were of good quality and cooked al dente - not always easy to come by in a family-friendly restaurant with a large menu. The refried beans, in my opinion, are some of the best in town: smooth and creamy, sprinkled with a tiny bit of white cheese.

It's rare that I'd order dessert after a meal like this one, but if you happen to have room, you won't be disappointed. A plate of flaky, lightly fried sopapillas came with every option one might need to satisfy a sweet tooth - some with powdered sugar, some with cinnamon sugar, and with drizzles of honey and hot fudge. My dessert of choice, the flan, had a superb caramel flavor and creaminess. With this sweet a finish and, inevitably, a takeout box with tomorrow's lunch in your hand, what could there be to complain about?

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