The little bungalow, most recently home to Uncorked Fine Wines, has undergone a makeover. Adorable now, with a blue-and-purple-and-loud color scheme outside and lively Día de los Muertos decor within, Casita Taqueria opened on Oct. 10. Newlywed owners Don and Gwen Arvin have traveled widely, especially enjoying the taquerias of Southern California. Largely mom-and-pop holes in the wall, these serve simple, fresh, uncomplicated dishes without a lot of sauce or molten cheese or sour cream. No crunchy shells, no avalanche of lettuce and tomato, no ground beef with "taco seasoning."
The tacos they craved were straightforward handmade corn masa soft tortillas, hot from the griddle, furnished sparsely with meat (braised beef, shredded chicken) and topped with maybe a little crunchy cabbage or pico de gallo, a spritz of lime juice and a ruffle of cilantro. Such things are few and far between in Pinellas County. It's not our fault. For many of us, "Mexican food" means the yellow Old El Paso box, a late-night Taco Bell run or a cheesy, beany burrito with the girth of a dachshund.
While other newlyweds are considering where to stow the new fondue pot and bread machine, the Arvins were zeroing in on the right "casita" (little house) for Southern California-style tacos. All well and good, but Gwen, studying to be a children's nutritionist at USF, and Don, who works at Priority One Financial in St. Petersburg, aren't chefs. Enter Rita Arug.
Arug showed up one day while the couple was painting the restaurant, saying simply, "I make tortillas."
Indeed she does. The rest of the menu overseen by California Culinary Academy graduate Andy Hobbs, Arug's tortillas are irregular and a little thicker than store-bought, with a faint sweetness from the corn masa and pale brown spots from the griddle. They are somewhere between chewy and pillowy, with a slight elasticity that allows you to fold up your taco and get busy. The core of the menu is nine taco fillings ($2.99-$3.25), which can also form the basis of a Mexican-style sandwich called a torta ($6.99), a bowl with beans and rice ($4.99-$6.99) or a salad ($6.75). The torta breads are authentic (if oversized) and the bowls are wholesome and filling. Still, stick with tacos.
We tried all nine one evening (an average appetite will want between two and three as a meal, with nice house-fried chips and frisky salsa cruda supplementing). Our favorites? An assertive salsa verde with tomatillos accompanied braised dark-meat chicken in the pollo verde, and a housemade pineapple salsa invigorated both the wild shrimp taco and a blackened fish version, both paired with shredded cabbage, cilantro and a dab of crema. The chorizo taco was also a treat, the spicy sausage a rare filling, paired nicely with onion and fluffs of queso fresco.
Arug evidently has more tricks up her sleeve, tamales and homemade Mexican desserts on the docket for fall. But even with its currently abbreviated menu, Casita Taqueria has begun to draw eager devotees to its dog-friendly back patio shielded by an immense live oak. With a glass of sangria ($4.50) or an icy Negro Modelo ($3.50), a simple taco can be a beautiful thing.
Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. She dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.