By Thomas Pavlik
I’m a big fan of fried chicken, so I had some mixed emotions when I heard that Raising Cane’s was taking over the former Casa Real location on Wabash Avenue. Sure, Springfield has quite a few Mexican restaurants, but I’ve always been partial to Casa Real. Thankfully, Casa Real is open once again at 1121 Lincolnshire Blvd. at Legacy Pointe in the former Quaker Steak and Lube location.
Casa Real’s new location is quite a down-size from its former space, which is not a bad thing. It’s evident that the owners did quite a bit of work on the space as little décor is left over from its previous occupant. We were particularly impressed with the private bar area, complete with garage doors that open to the parking lot – perfect for private parties.
We arrived around 11:30 a.m., and by the time we left the restaurant was mostly full. Naturally, our server quickly arrived with chips and salsa. We all concluded that the salsa was different from that previously served by Casa Real, maybe the tomatoes were roasted, and it was thick enough that it didn’t drip off of the chips. The same couldn’t be said for the queso ($7.25). It tasted fine, but it needed to be thicker. Be careful if you ask for the hot salsa. It was tomatillo-based and kicked like a mule.
We also tried the guacamole ($10.49), which is served tableside from an impressive cart laden with avocados, limes and all the various fixings. This dish, served in a lava rock container, was a pure delight. Paired with Casa Real’s homemade tortilla chips, it didn’t last long.
But our best starter was the elote corn dip (corn, lime, chile and queso fresco, $7.99). My guests were particularly enamored with it. I found the slight sweet note to be a nice surprise, while the acid from the line cut the fattiness from the dairy.
In keeping with its reduced footprint, Casa Real also trimmed its menu. Although there is a separate lunch menu, we decided to order off the main menu. There’s plenty on it to keep just about anyone happy, although I wish they offered some of the more esoteric dishes like lengua.
As entrees, we opted for the dinner portion of carne asada (skirt steak with sautéed onions, pico de gallo, guac and rice or beans), the birria tacos (braised short rib, cheese, rice, beans, pickled red onion, consome and fries – $16.99) and the taco salad (with chicken, $12.99).
Thankfully, unlike so many other local restaurants, our entrees came out at the same time and were all piping hot. Birria is a broth made from braising liquid seasoned with dried chiles, cilantro and other spices I couldn’t quite identify. Generally served as stew or soup, this version was more like a French dip, with the birria acting as the au jus. It was an incredibly flavorful dish. The fries, which were nicely seasoned, almost seemed superfluous but tasted great when dunked in the birria.
The carne asada consisted of a very generous helping of skirt steak with a wonderful char on the outside, served on top of grilled onions. The accompanying guacamole suffered in comparison to the tableside version, but the beans and rice were a step above Casa Real’s competitors. Frankly, it was too much for lunch.
The taco salad was reported as better than average. Just like it’s hard to screw up a salad, it’s likewise difficult to elevate one, which makes me wonder why my guest even opted for it in the first place.
Service was excellent, with one of my companions commenting that our server was the best he had experienced in quite some time.
Casa Real has certainly elevated the Mexican food game in Springfield. If you don’t mind running the risk of spilling some salsa on your shirt, it should be on your list for client lunches or for a place to get good and flavorful food in a nice atmosphere. Job well done, Casa Real.
Address: 1121 Lincolnshire Blvd., Springfield
Hours: Monday-Thursday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 1 a.m., Sunday 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.
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