DUNEDIN -- No one enjoys moving. The disruption, boxes, change of address forms. You have to keep your eye on the prize: nicer location, more space, better school district, whatever.
In the scheme of things, Casa Tina didn't have a bad move. It scooted right next door, from a tiny Main Street storefront to a much more luxurious space vacated by Amanda Austin Antiques.
Although Casa Tina took over its new space in mid February, it looks like it has been there forever. A long fuchsia wall is packed to capacity with old photos and funky mirrors; the opposite weathered brick wall is tattooed with a Day of the Dead skeleton mariachi band painting. Doors are flung wide to the front patio and maximum Main Street viewing. Shimmery orange and teal curtains pick up the dappled light from punched tin star lanterns and an altarlike candelabrum at the entrance. Rough-hewn wooden chairs, a wood and concrete floor, and an open kitchen pass-through inform your expectations: casual, affordable, fun and Mexican.
Bingo on all counts, but Casa Tina has a few tricks up its sleeves. Rice, beans and all sauces are vegetarian, and virtually all entrees are offered in vegetarian and vegan versions that are far from perfunctory. The carnivore has the full complement of options, but it's the vegetarian or pescetarian who is most ably served.
Animal proteins such as chicken almost serve as a vehicle for other flavors: Planks of white meat provide a benign canvas for a painting of nuanced, dusky mole poblano or a green mole of nutty pumpkin seeds. On the other hand, the diced squashes and peppers at the center of the chiles rellenos ($13.95) assert themselves, providing additional texture and flavor to the soft poblano and mantle of cheese.
The basic building blocks at Casa Tina are the stars: a scoop of sultry refried beans (topped with a few melting curls of cheese), a generous spoonful of Mexican rice, a plastic container stocked with hot, fragrant tortillas, chopped red cabbage and iceberg for a little crunch. Add to that a basket of thin, just-fried chips and a ramekin of salsa cruda. (One quibble: The bowl is too small so you end up chasing tomatoes up and over the edge with your chips.)
Still, fish dishes get plaudits from regulars, whether it's the simple Veracruz-style fish tacos ($16.95), grilled tilapia bejeweled with tomato, caper, onion and olive, or tilapia fajitas ($16.95). Let's face it, fajitas are second-hand dinner. The sizzly march through the dining room, the smell of seared onions and peppers that lingers on your clothes the next day — you don't even need to order them to enjoy their drama. At Casa Tina the warm tortillas, fish and veggies are accompanied with flavorful guac, roasted tomato salsa, sour cream, shredded cheese and lettuce.
None of this food is untrammeled ground (except for maybe the chayote relleno and the hominy-studded pozole soup), but the competence and focus on healthy, veggie-heavy preparations make it notable. Desserts may undo some of the healthy intentions — one night's crepes, $5.50, were a Where's Waldo experience: A preposterous avalanche of whipped cream, vanilla ice cream and pools of caramel hid the poor crepes entirely. Opt for the demure, wobbly flan ($4.50) instead.
Still, for now, Casa Tina has the buzz of a new restaurant but the self-assurance of an oldtimer, not a bad combination.
Laura Reiley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.