In terms of fine dining, North Mississippi Avenue used to be a one-trick pony: It used to be Lovely Hula Hands or the highway. But as the formerly gritty neighborhood continues to sprout Volvos and baby backpacks, an unassuming, tapas-inspired bungalow has arisen as another finer-dining option. Emphasizing small plates, fresh ingredients and—as of early September—a revamped menu, Casa Naranja (Spanish for "orange house") serves up often delicious, affordable Mediterranean fare in a funky setting. Orange you glad?
Case in point, the vegetable tartare ($6). Shaped like a flan, wrapped in zucchini ribbons and piled high with crispy fried onion strings, it's essentially a salad, but calling it that won't do it justice. Cherry tomatoes, golden beets, artichoke hearts, thinly sliced, raw red onion and spinach—meticulously proportioned and splashed with a citrus-tomato dressing—each take their turn on the tongue, serving up a volley of garden-fresh tastes.
Of course, it wouldn't be tapas without a medley of seafood plates, and in that regard Chef Matt Steele's creations range from the unexceptional to the inspired. Skip the salty tiger shrimp and breaded calamari (both $7) and angle for the scallops ($8). Wrapped in house-cured bacon, grilled and drizzled with vanilla oil, they'll make believers out of even the seafood-averse. Other standouts include the Dungeness crab ravioli ($15)—an unexpectedly light dish served with apple pesto—and the smoked-seafood plate ($9).
A caveat: Those seeking a strictly Iberian menu look elsewhere. Most of the plates at the Casa are Spanish but the rest is a grab bag of geography and gastronomy. Take the pork shoulder. It's smoked in-house and served with sofrito over caramelized apples, fingerling potatoes and an unforgettable parsnip puree. Nice texture and sweet-savory balance? Si. But is it Spanish? Claro que no.
A lot of the Casa's charm hinges on its retro digs: a 1920s California-style bungalow painted bright orange. But, a cramped floor plan and low ceilings are such that you can't help listening to conversations at nearby tables and, conversely, being listened to. Plus, to update a large living room, they've painted it black-and-neon like a pouch of Pop Rocks. That's fun and funky for some, garish for others. Instead, while the weather holds, opt for an outdoor table in the Casa's classy back yard.
It must be said: There are careless kitchen errors. For instance, a seared flatiron steak ($15) was pitch-perfect, but the gratinated potatoes over which it was served were a soggy, spongy mess. But you'll forgive Naranja when you taste the yam fries ($5): the sea salt on the springy crust and the earthy sugar of the yams.
Another plate that benefits from Chef Steele's dexterity with hot oil is the churros ($5). Spanish churros are bready, with a thin, flimsy crust like a funnel cake. But Casa Naranja's are a lot like their fries—nice thick crust outside, gooey inside.
My tablemate and I couldn't decide whether that difference in texture was intentional, but one thing's for sure—dusted with raw sugar and dipped in a chocolate Cointreau reduction, the churros don't disappoint.
Casa Naranja, 4205 N Mississippi Ave., 459-4049. 11 am-midnight Wednesday-Saturday, 10 am-9 pm Sunday. $-$$.