By Bill Gerdes
In a town like Palm Springs that features a 50-foot-high sculpture of Marylyn Monroe, it’s only fitting there’s a place like Las Casuelas Terraza, a sprawling behemoth of a Mexican restaurant, a titanic tribute to the taco, the margarita and a certain type of Mexican dining experience we don’t see much of anymore. Las Casuelas, like the city itself, is mildly surreal and rarely subtle—think of it as an interesting and tastier El Torito perhaps.
That comparison will send some running in the opposite direction. Understandably. There are aspects of Las Casuelas that frankly resemble the touristy Mexican place we’ve all stumbled into after a long day, the sort that doubles up on the chimichangas, the nachos, the listless slathering of bland rice and insipid, allegedly refried beans. One problem is the menu, which seems to be going out of its way to include every allegedly Mexican dish known. Looking at it for the first time I gulped. Fajitas? Si. Tostadas? Si. Even the massive scale of the place can be a bummer; a trip to find a restroom is an arduous affair that rubbed me the wrong way. I was cranky. It was sweltering, despite misters that blew wet air spasmodically at my face. Desperate for relief I ordered one of their Scratch Margaritas.
Bingo. Everything changed. And not just because I experienced some alcohol-fueled epiphany, although that may have been part of it. The margarita was also quite . . . tasty, served on the rocks, with El Jimador tequila and not overladen with sweet and sour mix—things were looking up. On the odd side they also offer a Skinny Margarita on the off chance it’s the booze that’s making you tubby. My table outside was so close to the street I felt as if I could reach out and touch a local’s pink Gucci bag. Meanwhile, music blared from inside where it was really humming, while the outside was packed as well it also seemed to be the place to chill and chat. Most of the people near me were Brits, not a group known for its embrace of Mexican cuisine. I worried all the Southeast England accents might be a harbinger of culinary doom.
I could have relaxed. Chips and salsa arrived and then the Fiesta Guacamole, which is basically guacamole, but damn nice guacamole, cilantro, just the right dash of lemon, chunky Roma tomatoes and chopped onions. Pretty tasty and even better when doubled up with the mildly interesting salsa, which could have more heat but has a delicious sweet zip to it. I no longer cared that they have hamburgers on the menu.
I hadn’t ordered a hamburguesa though, but instead a Carnitas Burrito. It comes with rice and beans in small bowls, rice and beans that always seem to bore me, unless there is a serious wow factor to either one. No wow factor here. I love pork—all kinds of dead pig. The best ham I’ve ever tasted was Jamon Serrano in the Sierra Nevadas in Spain, a Platonic ecstasy-inducing bit of pork. The best carnitas I’ve tasted was at the old La Villa restaurant in Riverside. The Carnitas Burrito at Las Casuelas isn’t art, but it is a tasty burrito nonetheless. It’s wet, dripping with juice, pinto beans, and bell peppers. It’s yummy, crammed with juicy carnitas that is tender and in no way greasy. It’s messy, more a knife and fork affair than hands on. And it ultimately winds up killing my El Torito comparison. Las Casuelas has been around since 1958; as I leave full and happy, I understand why.
Las Casuelas Terraza, 222 S. Palm Canyon Dr., Palm Springs, (760) 325-2794; www.lascasuelas.com. AE, D, MC, V.