Monday, February 23, 2009

A Preference for a Favorite.

Over the past couple of decades, Greater Little Rock has been inundated with lots of new Mexican offerings. But there’s one restaurant I keep coming back to.

It is human nature to choose favorites… and while I have endeavored to keep a clear mind about the places I have been over this journey, there are places that when I am home I return to, like a homing pigeon to its coop.

And when it comes to Mexican fare, I tend to return to Casa Mañana.

I remember when it wasn’t so popular, when it was a little restaurant stuck in an old Taco Bell location near UALR off of Asher. It was 1995, and I was recently out of college and on my way into my radio-to-television transition. We were scrapping to make it, of course, and any sort of good deal that could be found was grasped with both hands and utilized well.

Casa Mañana fit that bill, even then. My meager paycheck could usually squeeze out a visit or two amongst the rent and bills us young folks tended to have. And I could always count on leftovers to take home with me.

Of course, as many of us are wont to do, I moved away and grew up, and so did Casa Mañana. The folks that operated it opened new locations here and there -- and were on-board for the Little Rock River Market -- a dream when I left, a reality when I returned in 1998.

And they opened a location on Cantrell -- which is now the flagship location for a menu that has kept a lot of its charm while growing and expanding a pleasant repertoire.

Human nature also makes us creatures of habit, and for many many years my husband and I would end up with the same plates -- for him, the impressive Casa Mañana burrito (sans guacamole for him, $6.99 with or without), for me the Crab Enchiladas ($7.99). Sometimes we defer and go with one of the delicious combination plates (the Number Nine -- chicken burrito, chile releno, and beef taco with rice and beans for $7.99 at dinner is often ordered) but we tend to stick with what we know.

However, it is also in our nature as human beings to improvise and experiment, to try new sensations and experiences. So on a Thursday afternoon in January, we decided to drop by and try out dishes we’d never considered before.

Early afternoon is always a good time to go (so is late morning -- the restaurant opens at 10 a.m. during the week and 9 a.m. on the weekend). There weren’t many people inside at the time, and those that were there were merrily conversing away in Spanish.

We were greeted, of course, with the traditional bowls of salsa and fresh chips. The chips, of course, are housemade; the salsa as well, redolent of red bell pepper and cilantro and cumin, quite mild and easy on the mouth, the sort of salsa even the most delicate of diners could manage. Usually we also go with the cheese dip as well, white with its light dollop of spices -- but decided to pass so we could indulge in dessert later.

After some discussion, my husband decided to go with the Puntas Enchiltepinadas ($8.99), strips of beef cooked with pico de gallo and dried chiles. I decided on the Mole Poblano ($7.99), which seemed like a real departure from my normal choices. What the heck.

Our waitress quickly brought us out our starters for dinner -- a large salad for my husband, a hot bowl of tortilla soup for me. The salad was an impressive pile of shredded lettuce and chunks of tomato, overwhelmed by dressing (1000 Island). My soup, though, was a dark and delicious delight, a rich tomato and vegetable broth with crispy tortilla strips and a huge scattering of white cheese, the sort of thing you crave on cold winter nights.

Our waitress was ever attentive, as always. We tend to get rather good service -- one of the reasons we keep going back -- though from time to time there is a bit of a language barrier. Some might find this frustrating; not us. There’s never been a time when we haven’t been able to overcome it, and the few times servers have misinterpreted our orders the problems have been quickly resolved.

My husband also decided to go with the traditional American accompaniment to Mexican food, the lime margarita ($4.75, $3 during happy hour), by some accounts one of the best you’ll find in Little Rock. And it’s easy to see why. Unlike some area offerings, Casa Mañana’s margarita is a good blend between tequila and lime. The liquor doesn’t overpower the drink. It’s a great balance between sweet and salty, and a fine accompaniment for dinner.

Our dinners shortly arrived, along with rice and bean sides and a good number of hot, soft tortillas. My husband ranted over the taste of his Puntas, so I also gave it a shot. The spicy meat brought tears to my eyes -- they aren’t kidding when they write “Hot” twice on the menu to describe the dish. The meat takes the spice well, and retains its meatiness without being salty like such dishes often are.

My bigger surprise came with the Mole Poblano, though, which announced itself to me first through scent. Compared to your average rice-and-beans-and-cheese aroma that greets most diners in Mexican restaurants, I could smell the chocolate and bananas and nuts in the sauce. The taste, however, was something far deeper -- almost a history in a bite, with chiles and raisins and other delicious things partying about. Such a strong and powerful sauce might overwhelm some dishes -- but with the well-flaked and hearty portion of chicken it covered, it made a fine dish. And laid out on a tortilla with rice, beans, and a little sour cream, it achieved ethereal heights for such an earthy and delicious dish. Of course, the little spicy kick that decided to announce itself a few moments after a swallow was welcome, too.

Far too many times desserts are overlooked, but at Casa Mañana they’re proudly displayed in their own menu on each and every table. While we’re both fans of the Flan and dig the Sopapillas, there’s one dessert that’s especially meant for sharing -- the fried tube-like Churros. Six fried pastries filled with a little crema are drizzled with chocolate and caramel, sprinkled with a cinnamon-sugar blend and topped with whipped cream. Eat them with a fork or your fingers, doesn’t matter… the light crunchy pastries are as big as your forefinger and a little bigger around than your thumb, and they’re the perfect little finale to a dinnertime performance.

The taste of Casa Mañana can be experienced elsewhere -- at Casa Mañana Taquiera in the River Market or at La Palapa, the Mexican seafood place out on Highway 10. But we still find ourselves heading to the location on Cantrell Road catty-corner from Stein Mart.

If it’s warm, check out the deck out back -- a nice hidden oasis that peers out over the valley below. Smoking is allowed on the deck, but not inside.

Casa Mañana can be found at 6820 Cantrell Road in Little Rock. You can call ahead to place an order if you wish to (501) 280-9888 or check out the restaurant’s website.


  1. love it, too. not my most fave, but in the top five, for sure.

  2. My favorite Mexican place. The tortilla soup makes me so happy.


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