Perhaps it's the romantic in me, but inside downtown Mountain View's Cascal I am transported to restaurants in Mexico City, Santiago and Madrid. The vibe is hot: samba, salsa, flamenco and swirls of color, with an energy level that suffuses the dining room and lifts the spirits.
Last time I reviewed Cascal in 2010, I heaped compliments on the Latin-themed restaurant, its vibrant décor, the appetizing small-plate tapas, the paella, seafood and meat creations, the lively bar scene and excellent service. Not much has changed.
Now in their thirteenth year of business, restaurant veteran and founder Dan Durante and partner Brad Daley stay the course, not just for fine-casual dining, but fun-casual dining. When asked, Cascal is my tip-of-the-tongue recommendation for a lively dining scene in Mountain View.
Inside, the high ceiling, arched partitions, bold colors, floor-to-ceiling windows and festive colors of the tables and dinnerware (even the salt and pepper shakers) set a tone of cheerfulness and good times. On weekends, live music amps the tempo of merriment and ratchets the noise level up a notch. For those preferring a more quiet dinner, the outside patio with heaters, trees and flower boxes provides a perfect venue for al fresco dining.
Executive Chef Antonio Flores Lopez, on board since the restaurant's inception, has slowly evolved the menu, adjusting with cyclical economies, food trends and the always-fickle local dining public. The cuisine is always energetic, reasonably priced, well-prepared and appealingly presented.
For me, Cascal's signature dish is the paella. Of the four versions, the paella Cascal is the most traditional, with chicken, pork and shellfish ($24 for a small that easily serves two to three people; $44 for a large). I particularly liked the paella rustica (also $24 and $44) with lamb, chorizo, chicken, morcilla (blood sausage), saffron rice, green beans and sweet piquillo peppers. Other versions are all seafood, all vegetables and all good.
Five sizzling shrimp ($13) were served in hot garlic-infused olive oil with potent chile de árbol and fresh lime. The chilies didn't overpower the dish or the mouth, but rather offered a polite kiss on the lips.
I enjoyed the pescado Marbella ($13), a delicate, fresh, thick halibut filet that was baked in olive oil and topped with preserved lemon, capers and bits of serrano ham. The fish was flaky, moist and, while halibut can be bland, this wasn't.
My favorite dish was the corn-poblano sauté with crisp serrano ham ($10.50). Fresh white corn, poblano chilies, red onions, cotija cheese (a hard and crumbly cow's milk from Mexico) and crema were served like a deep-dish casserole. Unlike a casserole though, the flavors didn't meld together. They were distinct as were the textures: creamy, crisp, moist and chewy. The dish was enticing, with plenty to share -- though I didn't want to.
The dozen bivalves served in the mussels pimentón ($14) were prepared in a smoky, paprika-infused wine-butter sauce. It was worth saving some of the bread from the complimentary bread and oil that appeared soon after we were seated to sop up the excellent sauce.
Three crisp wild mushroom empanadas ($13) with Manchego cheese, a sheep's milk cheese from Spain's La Mancha region, were enhanced with truffle oil. Empanadas are best when the pastry is crisp, plump with ingredients and piping hot, as they were here. The mushroom filling was earthy, aromatic and delicious.
The beef short rib adobo ($14) --Mexico City-style braised short rib with red onion-cilantro salad --was fork tender. An accompanying fresh corn arepa, a flat and round unleavened patty made from ground maize, helped soak up the tasty red adobo sauce.
As a side dish, we ordered the fresh corn and goat cheese arepa with red onion-tomato chutney ($6). It was smaller than a small plate, more like the typical size of tapas in Spain, and just as delicious.
Desserts. The tres leche cake ($8) was a light coconut-infused three-milk cake decorated with fresh fruit salsa and a meringue topping. Bread pudding ($8) was made with fresh green apple, dried fruit, spices and drizzled with a bourbon caramel sauce and served with house-made vanilla ice cream. I don't think bread pudding is particularly Latin but it was good anyway.
The beverage list was excellent and reasonably priced, with specialty cocktails, mojitos, margaritas, caipirinhas (a popular Brazilian cocktail made with cachaça, sugar and lime) and sangrias. The wines were mostly from Spain, Chile and Argentina, with a few from California.
When I think of festive restaurants, enjoying a delightful evening with friends, sharing good food and trading stories, or just wanting a great place to eat well and affordably, I still default to Cascal.
400 Castro St., Mountain View
Hours: Monday-Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 pm; Friday-Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to midnight; Sunday 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Credit cards: yes
Alcohol: full bar
Happy hour: Monday-Friday, 3:30-6:30 p.m.
Outdoor dining: patio
Noise level: moderate to high
Bathroom cleanliness: excellent