Two days before Casa Del Lago opened in February 1999, chef-owner Hector Angeles was looking for something Italian to slip onto his menu, but he didn't want pasta. He wanted something divergent, maybe twisted. He was stuck. "I saw a contest in a magazine about what you can create with pork, you know, 'the other white meat,'" he says.
So he went to bed thinking Italian and pork. Those thoughts coalesced into a meaty flash in a dream. In the morning, he had the inspirational putty to fill those vacancies. He calls this creative nocturnal impulse seared pork-steak ravioli ($12.99), though it isn't ravioli, and it most certainly isn't Italian. What it is is a kind of meat sandwich, a pair of thin pork medallions pounded and paddled into flat tenderness. Between these medallions, dusted with a five o'clock shadow of seasonings, he slips a paste of cheddar and jack cheeses with heavy whipping cream and herbs fused in a food processor. "It looks like a ravioli when you cut into it," he says in support of his chosen moniker.
Actually, it looks nothing like ravioli. Doesn't taste like it either. This dish, if it's pasta at all, is a meat-lover's version of the noodle. It's also among the tastiest things ever concocted with that "other white meat." It's tender, firm, and chewy. Rich, savory juice flows profusely. "I never sent the recipe, because I was too busy with the restaurant," Angeles says. Too bad. He would have been inducted into the National Pork Producers Council hall of fame.
This isn't the first recipe Angeles has drawn from slumber. He says that since 1984, through his stints with The Mansion on Turtle Creek, The Landmark, and the Nana Grill, he's employed the dreaming state on numerous occasions to draft new dishes. When he goes to bed, he says, he invariably dreams of food. So he's gotten into the habit of parking a pencil and pad next to his bed. He struggles to wake from every dream to jot down a word or two to jog his memory in the morning. When he worked at Nana Grill, he claims, his nocturnal forays were a crucial ingredient in his daily drive for new menu specials. "Every one was my dream," he boasts. "Every special was a dream."
Though Angeles doesn't make the same claim about his daily work at Casa Del Lago, some dishes seem to approach the lucidity of his pork pillow. Slices of pan-roasted Muscovy duck breast ($24.99) are looped with crisp, rich rings of singed skin. Dribbles of clean shiitake mushroom sauce -- a wash made from demi-glace laced with Marsala, garlic, and rosemary -- flush the neatly rowed slices with gentle gusts of earthy nuttiness. A pile of supple Southwestern rice penetrated with cumin, garlic, and chili powder serves as an accompaniment.
But another special all but went belly-up. Grilled Chilean sea bass ($19.99) in spicy garlic-ginger sauce was a rugged little fish, its texture varying from dry and rubbery to spongy and soggy. Casa Del Lago offers a choice of seven sides with its entrées, from crisp and delicate stalks of asparagus to the aforementioned Southwestern rice. But the linguini, a more conventional stab at Italian than his pork vagary, was dismal. The white-wine cream sauce bathing these pasta threads surged with a taste reminiscent of rancid butter.
Yet even considering these stumbles, Casa Del Lago is nothing if not pleasingly ambitious. It's couched in Cedar Hill in a circa-1946 duplex that at various times housed a dance studio, a beauty salon, a lingerie boutique, a massage parlor (with dimmer-switched lights), and a home health-care center. It was vacant for roughly six months before Angeles and his wife, Sheri, along with various family members, renovated the place on a shoestring, learning various remodeling trades as they went. When the space was finally presentable, they discovered they hadn't budgeted for interior cosmetics. So Sheri struck a deal with a couple of Cedar Hill antiques dealers who offered to decorate the space with surplus vestiges in exchange for exposure, most of it in the form of prominently displayed price tags, some hanging by a thread, which makes the dining room resemble a kind of Minnie Pearl hat gallery.
Paintings hang on the walls. Stained leaded-glass windowpanes dangle from chains in the windows (they can be had for $149). There's a little stool made from cow skulls just outside the back door. As pieces are sold, they're replaced. Sheri Angeles says they sold four of the antique buffets that have intermittently served as their host/hostess stand -- one for $800 -- before they purchased the piece that's currently hunkered near the door. One item that isn't for sale is a circa-1940 range. That was a Valentine's Day present to Hector from Sheri.
Some of the pieces are downright eerie. In one dining chamber hangs a photo of a boy from the last century, or maybe the one before that, about 9 years old, leaning against a chair. He's wearing a suit and black boots. His long locks are curled like tubes. His posture is confident, his expression crackling with self-assured optimism, constrained though it is in a cherubic gaze. One can only wonder who he was and what became of him. You can ponder this mystery on your very own wall for $75.
Price tags aside, such touches add pensiveness to the place, which -- with its lacy curtains, cute paintings, and icicle Christmas lights dangling from the eaves -- flirts dangerously with sappiness.
And there are a few screws to tighten. The flimsy flatware, with forks sporting mangled prongs, is a cheap detraction. Napkins are thin, dinky paper things, the kind bought in bulk for church picnics, only here, you get just one.
And speaking of church, Casa Del Lago is near one, which, combined with a server team staffed with high school students, means there's no booze served in this dining duplex. It's all BYOB. Which isn't bad. The underage staff can't legally touch the stuff, which translates into corkage-free sipping. Servers provide corkscrews and glasses and leave you to your devices, or rather their devices.
Unfortunately, the fresh-squeezed lemonade is weak, and the coffee is wretched. But most everything else is delicious. And you can see Angeles swiftly sautéing, stirring, and swirling in a fog of flame-licked smoke through a windowed wall portal that channels kitchen buzz to the dining room.
Sautéed pecan-crusted mahimahi in an orange-ginger beurre blanc ($13.99) is tasty. The dank, flaky flesh drenched the mouth with its sweetness. The only drawback was the sauce, though not its flavor. It was just far too scarce. On the other hand, the vegetable medley, a clump of yellow squash, zucchini, and red bell peppers, was soggy and overcooked.
Singed savory crab cakes ($7.49), about the size of poker chips, are served in a smooth puddle of garlic cream sauce holding a clump of refreshing tomato-pineapple-mango salsa. Angeles says he grew weary of reading crab-cake critiques lamenting the resultant bland pastiness from an out-of-whack breadcrumb-to-crabmeat ratio. So he makes his recipe with more than 90 percent crab flesh and binds them with Japanese (panko) breadcrumbs. Panko crumbs, Hector says, act as a neutral glue, leaving the cakes to hover in their own rich sweetness.
Lobster tacos ($9.99) come off with equal verve. Generous nuggets of sweet, succulent sautéed lobster mingle with spinach and Monterey jack cheese in folds of supple flour tortilla. A sparkling salsa of yellow tomato, cucumber, bell pepper, and jalapeño tortured in a meat grinder rounds the dish beautifully.
Hearts of palm salad ($5.49) was arranged like a series of interlocking Lincoln logs forming a square in the center of the plate. The hearts were tender, but the vegetable relish -- diced yellow squash, shallots, carrot, tomato, and zucchini -- encircling this bit of rustic geometry was dull and watery, despite an infusion of lemon-herb dressing.
Desserts showed modest aplomb. Almond crepes ($5.99), made with sliced blanched almonds and sautéed banana slices and strawberries swimming in a pool of rich caramel sauce, are delicate and delicious. Orange crème brûlée ($5.99), served in a puff pastry, was less successful because it was cold throughout, even the crisp sugar lid.
Nevertheless, this little dining room is well worth the effort and the price of gas. The menu is relatively inexpensive, and what you get is flavorful. Just remember to bring your favorite wine, your checkbook, and maybe a pickup truck. You might find a buffet or a corner cabinet to your liking.
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