I was first introduced to Mexican food at Mi Casa, a restaurant in the commercial district of our Southern California neighborhood. Within seconds of being seated, the waitress would bring out a large bowl of oily, crispy tortilla chips and a red salsa that I still crave.
The amount of cheddar cheese the kitchen uses is comical. Tacos are half filling and half shredded cheese. I peered into the kitchen once and saw industrial-sized buckets overflowing with yellow cheese. When an order of nachos comes to the table, it’s bright, bright orange—the aftermath of a cheese volcano covering the plate.
When I moved to the Bay Area and discovered taqueria after taqueria in the Mission, I understood that Mi Casa was a meeting ground, a liminal space. Pounds of American cheese collided with and overwhelmed tacos, burritos and nachos. Mi Casa was Mexican American food, a hybrid cuisine that mall chains would expand upon and exploit, diluting flavors with artificial ingredients. After a couple of margaritas, who would notice or care? When I go back to visit, I make a point of ordering what are essentially cheese tacos for a strong hit of Mi Casa nostalgia.
Mi Casa Grill in Richmond is also a hybrid restaurant. But the chef, Juvenal Magaña, is incorporating fresh California produce into his dishes. There’s no sign of cheddar cheese anywhere in sight. Small, thoughtful touches appear on the composed plates. Vegetarian tostaditas ($12.25) included asparagus, carrots, zucchini and yellow squash piled high on a fava bean spread that rivaled, and probably bettered, many iterations of hummus. And, in front of the two tostaditas, there were thick wedges of radish and lightly salted, peeled cucumber.
It sounds like an insignificant thing, to add radish and cucumber to a plate. But these details come from the mind of someone who’s thinking through the way someone is actually eating a dish. The vegetables on the tostaditas are grilled, deeply charred and topped with bright purple cabbage, onions and two rings of bell peppers, one orange and one red. After you eat one, the cold crisp cucumber and radish act as a palate cleanser, the equivalent of a sorbet between courses at a French restaurant.
There’s a taqueria in the Mission where I’ve ordered flautas many times. I get a side of guacamole and I’m set. Chef Magaña’s flautas ($10.95) make the ones I’m used to eating pale in comparison. He covers and smothers them with so many pretty colors and ingredients. White cotija cheese mingles with crema, fresh herbs, salsa, pickled red onions. His signature bell pepper rings crown the whole dish. The flautas themselves are crispy and golden. I opened my eyes widely to plead my case for the last one.
A tricky entrée for some Mexican restaurants is the chile relleno (I don’t think my So. Cal. Mi Casa attempted to make it). Berkeley’s Tacubaya was the first place I tried one that wasn’t dreadful, soggy and sodden. Before trying it there, I had avoided the dish. Mi Casa Grill’s version ($16.95) made me think of chile rellenos as a go-to dish rather than as something to skip or as an afterthought. Magaña does cover it in red sauce, but it’s added right before a server brings it to the table so it still retains a crispiness.
Mi Casa Grill’s menu is vast. Everything you’ve ever wanted at a Mexican restaurant is on it. Tortas, enchiladas, mole enchiladas, quessabiria, quesadillas, mulitas and burritos. There’s a grilled meat and seafood section. Plus nachos, ceviche and agua fresca (jamaica is dynamite, and the pineapple is too). What surprised me was the quality and care that went into each dish. Something as straightforward as a taco was also exceptional. The grilled shrimp taco ($5.50) was light and balanced with plenty of nicely acidic, finely diced veggies. Ultimately though, it was the freshly made tortilla that made the dish soar.
Mi Casa Grill, open Tues to Thurs 8am-9pm, Fri to Sun 8am-10pm. 12056 San Pablo Ave., Richmond. 510.374.6033. instagram.com/micasa.grill