Mi casa, su casa

Updated: 2011-09-04 07:59

By Mike Peters (China Daily)

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Mi casa, su casa

 Mi casa, su casa

Ceviche is classic raw fish marinated in lime or lemon and served with chunks of tomato, onions and avocado, in an elegant cocktail glass. [Michael Franklin / for China Daily]


Mike Peters discovers that good food and hot music combine to bring real Latin flavor to Solana's bar street.

Forget everything you've heard about Cinco de Mayo - any Mexican will tell you that's not really Mexican Independence Day. (Cinco de Mayo, the fifth of May, is mostly a happy excuse to drink lots of margaritas In Texas and California.) No, the day that really matters if you want to party for Mexican liberty is Septiembre Diez y Seis - or Sept 16 in gringoland. Happily, that's just around the corner, and although expats like to lament the lack of good Mexican food in the country, Casa Latina is a bright spot in Mexican desert here.

The jalapeno-dotted nachos are merely passable, but don't let that first impression get you down. By the time they come, you'll probably have had one of the Cuban bartender's muy bueno cocktails, and you'll be too cheerful to notice that chips and melted cheese are harder to marry in China than they should be.

A better start is the sopa Azteca (68 yuan), the house special soup that starts with a base of tomato and dried pepper and blooms with the aroma and slightly bitter bite of the herb epazote. Swimming in this fragrant brew are crisp corn, chunks of fresh cheese, cubes of avocado and pork chicharron with a splash of fresh cream.

Other worthy openers: A chicken and mango salad (68 yuan) served on mixed lettuces and dressed with caramelized hazelnuts and sweet-and-sour dressing, and ceviche (50 yuan), fish classically marinated in lemon juice and tossed with avocado, tomato, onion and cilantro.

Fajitas (98 yuan) were so-so on our first try - the grill arrived on the table smokin' hot, but the beef tenderloin strips had clearly been cooked earlier and plopped on the serving platter without a hint of the tableside sizzle that made this dish a hit. On our second visit, they came out just right.

More predictable are the mole offerings, a succulent chicken leg (80 yuan) or enchiladas (85 yuan) smothered in a savory dark sauce of cocoa, dried chilis and other aromatic spices. Both versions are sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds and served with fluffy Mexican red rice. As Ricky Martin would say: Fabuloso!

Chefs have come and gone at Casa Latina, but the food has consistently been top of the class in Beijing.

One of the most popular dishes on the menu is not Mexican but Cuban, the other culture of the house. Look for a classic ropa vieja (68 yuan), shredded beef made tangy in a stew of tomatoes, shaved onions, red and yellow bell peppers. That comes with traditional congri rice and a pair of banana tostones. The lightly battered fruit is fried just crisp on the outside but soft and sweet on the inside in a way that has Caribbean folks dancing from Havana to Trinidad.

If you're in Casa Latina after about 9:30 pm, you'll probably be dancing, too, thanks to the restaurant's most recent import, the visiting Cuban band Reyes 73.

DJ Ramon Posada keeps the crowd focused on the music, which may be the easiest job in Beijing thanks to the electrifying combo of jazz, meringue and calypso these musicians can produce. The owner's daughter, who is Russian, sometimes sings with the band in powerfully sultry Spanish. (Surprise: She says she just memorized the songs, so don't try to chat her up en espanol!)

Mix the sound with the vast Latin cocktail menu (lots of fine rum and tequila put to good use here) and a Cuban cigar and you may be surprised to find yourself still in China when you walk out the front door later.

If the la carte prices seem steep, look for regular specials on the website or the new 68 yuan set lunch, with a different menu each day of the week. The bartender's liquor partners are clearly old hands at promotion, so there's usually some kind of deal going on house cocktails or tequila shots, too.

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 Mi casa, su casa

Casa Latina offers great entertainment with live music by Cuban band Reyes 73, and their Caribbean rhythm may just get you on the dance floor. And after working up a sweat and an appetite again, you'll probably be needing to order more food. [Michael Franklin / for China Daily]

Mi casa, su casa


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