June 25th, 2008 LIZ CRAIN | Food Reviews & Stories
 

Masa Me

Milwaukie’s Casa de Tamales puts the real casa in cooking.

     
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Casa’s Natalie Jackson with the Nacatamal
IMAGE: Jenna Biggs

Canby Asparagus Farm has been wrapping and steaming farm-fresh tamales at local farmers markets for more than a decade, but since November its tamales have found a permanent home, along with a full Mexi-menu, at its breakfast, lunch and dinner restaurant Casa de Tamales in Milwaukie, just south of Sellwood.

There are only six tamales on the menu ($6, $8.95 with rice and beans), but you can choose from around 40 types—with 20 vegetarian or vegan options—if you call ahead for a special order. According to Casa de Tamales’ Charles Maes, father of owner Brandon Maes, they’ll even cook up a ravioli tamale if that’s what you crave.

Whatever you order in-house will most likely be called over the server’s shoulder in Spanish to one of the open kitchen’s five female cooks. Consistency is bunk at Casa de Tamales, and this is a good thing. If you request a green mole from one cook it may be rich with pistachios, while another’s will be thick with roasted pumpkin seeds. These women have years of kitchen experience under their aprons—it just happens to be casa cooking.

Casa de Tamales packs in a handful of tables along with a collage of bright, mismatched décor. A Pee-wee Herman doll rides a golden lion sculpture on the entryway table next to a showcase of plastic-plated entrees.

The nacatamal ($9), a Nicaraguan-style tamale, arrives steaming on the banana leaf it was wrapped in—the size of three normal tamales, it’s plump with pulled chicken, ripe bites of cooked plum, diced potato, small green olives and raisins. All the varying flavors work a sweet and savory magic that can be spiced up or cooled down with the house salsa and crema. If you add rice and beans ($2.95)—traditional Mexican rice cooked in a light tomato sauce with mild refried pintos—schedule a siesta.

The chiles rellenos ($6-$9), made fresh Wednesday through Saturday, aren’t on the menu but there are usually at least three types on offer, including traditional cheese, grilled asparagus, and bay shrimp and asparagus with cream cheese. The egg batter is light and fluffy, the cheese creamy and not too rich, and the delicious housemade corn tortillas that come with it are perfect to sop up the mildly spicy, citrus-sparked red sauce.

There’s no alcohol at Casa de Tamales at the moment (they’re working on a liquor license), so tip back a Mexican Coke (made with sugar rather than corn syrup) ($2), Jarritos ($2) or a fresh-squeezed juice ($4) while inquiring about everything that’s not on the menu. Winters Farm in Troutdale and Canby Asparagus Farm’s year-round harvests dictate the kitchen. So although the menu is skinny, there’s usually at least twice as much seasonal fare that no one bothers to type up on the menu or write on the specials board.

Unless you ask, you probably won’t hear about the delicious strawberry-rhubarb empanada ($6) wrapped and fried in a housemade corn tortilla and topped with drizzled caramel sauce, the carnitas plate ($12.95) cooked with a hint of fresh-squeezed orange juice, the Oaxacan chocolate mole ($18 a pound), or the sweet and simple bunuelos ($4)—Mexican fried pastries. At Casa de Tamales, good things come to those who venture off the menu.


EAT: Casa de Tamales, 10605 SE Main St., Milwaukie, 654-4423. Open 9 am-9 pm daily. $ Inexpensive.
 
  • Currently 3.5/5 Stars.
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